The complexities of commemoration

In 2016, the Australia-Japan Community Network lodged a racial discrimination case against Ashfield Uniting Church, because they were displaying a statue of a Korean woman, designed to honour the sex slaves (known as “comfort women”*) of the Imperial Japanese army during World War 2. The statue was originally intended for Croydon Park, but Strathfield Council decided not to have it installed. Many women, mostly Korean and Chinese with a small number of Dutch, were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army before and during the war, suffering horrific abuse. The exact number is still being researched, with estimates ranging from 20,000 to 400,000. The bronze figure of a petite Korean woman sits on a chair – another chair next to her is empty.


Photo: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

The same church hosts another non-religious statue of a woman – the “Goddess of Democracy and Freedom” designed by Chinese sculptor Chen Weiming and forms a replica of the statue constructed by pro-democracy student protestors in Tiananmen Square.

The Dutch city of Utrecht features an almost life-size statue of Anne Frank. Even though she was born in Germany and lived in Amsterdam, she has become a symbol of hope in the face of adversity.

Liberty is a woman. So is Justice. New York’s Fearless Girl stares down the Charging Bull.


Photo: Fearless Girl Statue – Anthony Quintano via Flickr. (CC BY-2.0)

In the wake of tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, many cities and towns across America are removing their statues of Confederate generals.

Although Australia has not been a great statue-building nation, preferring giant animals and fruit, Stan Grant has observed that the statues we do have symbolise the power of colonial rule and ignore the suffering and slaughter of indigenous people that many of these same men inflicted. The most prominent statue of a woman is the portly Queen and Empress of India, one opposite the Barracks and another outside her eponymous building.

We also have Robert Burns. He was a philanderer who had very little to do with Australia. But why not? You can see him on the way to an Art Gallery whose building advertises artists such as Rembrandt, even though they do not hold any works by Rembrandt.

Statues are expensive to commission, difficult to erect and almost always occupy a prominent position in order to attract the attention of passers-by. Whoever is in charge, therefore, gets to decide the subject and style of the statue. They can be powerful icons and reminders of historical events, but their simple portraiture allows very little room for nuance. A statue of a single person may only tell one side of a single story, often the story of a victor who was also an oppressor.

Many people are now beginning to challenge the dominant narratives told by public street art, either by removing the statues completely or by creating new artworks which honour the victims of abuse and tell their previously untold stories.

Statues are not just the symbol of a person or an event, they represent the current attitude towards that person or event. Similarly, the ways in which significant anniversaries are commemorated are greatly affected by the current political climate and the emotions of the participants.

This is not always a negative thing. More recent events can imbue traditional commemorations with a new significance. For example, many Jewish people see the festival of Pesach, which celebrates deliverance from slavery in Egypt, as holding a new and poignant meaning in the aftermath of the Holocaust. A modern addition to the Passover seder plate is Miriam’s cup – a cup full of water which symbolizes Moses’ sister Miriam in the Exodus story and is designed to include women in the ceremonial meal.

The holiest day of the Australian calendar is April 25th, the anniversary of a major defeat. The annual services, led by the temple-like War Memorial in Canberra, have greatly increased in size and number. The vehement public backlash in 2015 against supermarket chain Woolworths, who tried to use ANZAC day for a promotion, shows how highly Australians regard the occasion and object to blatant commercialisation.

Despite the historians who point out the numerous ways in which Australian servicemen were far from heroic, the day and its significance maintain an increasingly sacred place in the Australian psyche. Anyone, particularly a Muslim woman, who is seen to be criticising it is publicly attacked for being ‘disrespectful.’ Never mind the fact that she might be justly drawing attention to current wars and atrocities.

Personally, I would like to see more space in the public commemorations of ANZAC day for the woman and children who suffered at the hands of returned soldiers who were not given the support they needed for their PTSD, and took their own trauma out on their families. Violence begets violence. The ANZAC myth, with its focus on courage, mateship and stoic endurance, may indeed have contributed to the toxic masculinity which has not only caused social problems like domestic violence but eaten away at the humanity of the men themselves. It certainly allows very little room for the complexities and moral ambiguities of history.

My own ANZAC day Facebook post was only seen by a small audience but demonstrated my desire to remember and honour the women who either served in, or were affected by, the wars and conflicts of the last century.


The War Memorial in Canberra is an impressive sandstone edifice, crowned by the Shrine of Remembrance, and lit by the perpetual flame. Its most significant feature however, lies behind an unassuming door labelled ‘Research Centre’. The vast collection of service records, diaries, letters, books, memoirs and objects – preserved and catalogued by professional librarians and archivists – holds the multitude of stories that make up the complicated history of Australians during wartime. Even here, I’m sure there are gaps and untold stories. But heritage institutions can collect and reveal the stories of ordinary people who will never have a statue of them built.

Or perhaps they might, in a way. I like to think the ‘comfort women’ statue represents all trafficked women and children, all sex slaves, all rape victims, and says they are not forgotten. The bronze Anne Frank is a symbol of all who have suffered under oppressive regimes. The Fearless Girl represents women who have taken a stand against misogyny.

A statue can be an important icon. But it’s even more important to tell all sides of the story.


*The term “comfort women” is a translation of the Japanese euphemism for prostitute. Since it is a term used by the perpetrators, and holds considerable tragic irony, I place it in inverted commas.


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