Distortions in the Name of Heritage (Are Still Distortions)
Kiln-formed glass, enamel
52 x 52 x 5
In the middle of this large black mirror is a distortion; the glass has been slumped over a relief of the controversial representation of the "Coburg Moor" ("Coburger Mohr"), and the distortions this creates inhibit the viewer’s ability to accurately see the figure, their own reflection or the world around them.
The distorting image is from Coburg’s coat of arms, as encountered underfoot on the city’s utility access covers. The Coburg Moor is said to represent the city’s patron saint, the legendary St. Maurice, a Roman commander from Egypt who was martyred in the Swiss Alps in the third century CE. However, the attributes of a commanding officer of a Roman legion have been stripped from him; instead he wears a large gold earring, a symbol commonly used by Europeans when depicting Africans to denote servitude and a primitive nature, and his features bear the hallmarks of sterotyped European depictions of Africans.
The underfoot aspect of the original image is suggested by the large circle, and the foot prints and tire tracks in the corners. While it is quite common for municipalities to feature their coat of arms on their manhole covers, placing this particular image where it is inevitably trod on and run over is deeply unsettlng.
Humans are relational animals – we define ourselves in relation to others. And when we distort the images of others, we also distort how we see ourselves.
Defenders of the image may believe that it shows respect for Africans as demonstrated by a veneration of this depiction of an African. However, the use of the outdated term ‘Mohr’ and the features of this depiction draw on traditions of racialised distortions of ‘the other.’ If people from Africa and of African descent regard it as offensive, who and what is being honoured by this depiction today?