By Chukwuma Ajakah
Going by the momentous reactions that trail Joe Biden’s removal of the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office, many may wonder whether that artwork has something to do with the rivalry between Biden and Donald Trump. Does the portrait of Winston Churchill obstruct Biden’s movements within the oval office?
As depicted in Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess”, artwork in the abode of powerful men holds so much meaning that aesthetic seems to be out of the equation. Art in the house of men of power often goes beyond beauty and entertainment. Such art may wade into the realm of politics, power, socio-economic relationships, and ultimately become a status symbol.
In ‘My Last Duchess’, the famous English poet, Robert Browning, portrays an egocentric, power-drunk and jealous lover, the Duke of Ferrara who ironically admires and shows off a painting of his adorable wife and Duchess after he had killed her out of envy.
Unlike the arrogant Duke of Ferrara who delighted more in a portrait than the person it represents, Joe Biden may be a secret admirer of the real Churchill whose heroism has been variously portrayed in oral, visual and written art, but by that singular act of removing the bust of Churchill, he has attracted a barrage of criticism, depicting him as a hater with hidden sentiments towards the socio-cultural phenomena the “bust” symbolizes, especially in relation to his political ideals.
Just as the Duke of Ferrara expresses his admiration for his slain Duchess’ portrait through a dramatic monologue, Joseph Biden must have had some internal dialogue before making that audacious decision. Only the “Sleeping Joe” can tell what was on his mind when like “the Duke of Ferrara,” he “gave orders and all smiles seized.”
Diverse reactions trail that supposedly innocuous act. An ally of former President, Donald Trump and the leader of the Reform UK party, Nigel Farage believes that the removal of the bust suggests the “new US President will not be a ‘great friend’ to the UK.”
The politician, Farage, told the BBC: “Joe Biden is anti-Brexit. Joe Biden is pro-the European Union. Joe Biden is pro-the Irish nationalist cause. And Joe Biden was the Vice President when Obama came here in 2016, looked down his nose at us and said if we dared to vote for independence we would go to the back of the queue.”
Former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had given the bust of Churchill, created by sculptor Jacob Epstein, to the then US President George W. Bush. The original was restored to the Oval Office by Donald Trump who posed in front of it together with ex-Prime Minister Theresa May when she visited Washington in 2017.
Boris Johnson never hides his admiration for the legendary war hero, Sir Winston Churchill, whose biography he wrote in 2014. The book titled, “The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History” reveals the author’s passionate attachment to the legend and chronicles some of Churchill’s laudable achievements especially during the war.
There appears to be something the bust of Winston Churchill embodies that has made it an object of great interest to US presidents since the tenure of George W. Bush who first received it from a former UK PM, Tony Blair. The Republicans celebrate it as exhibited in similar enthusiasm George W. Bush and Donald Trump displayed towards it, while the Democrats, represented by Barrack Obama and now Joseph, seem to abhor it.
The bust was first removed from the Oval Office by Barrack Obama in 2009. Boris Johnson had then described Obama’s actions as a “snub to Britain” and reportedly wondered whether Obama was vindictively expressing “Kenyan ancestral dislike of the British Empire.”
In 2016, Obama had said he had a bust of Churchill conspicuously placed where he would see it every day outside his private office on the second floor: ‘I see it every day, including on weekends when I’m going into that office to watch a basketball game. The primary image I see is a bust of Winston Churchill.”
Following Johnson’s aspersions that Obama harbored ill ancestral feelings against the UK, the former President remarked: “I love Winston Churchill. I love the guy. When I was elected as President of the United States, my predecessor had kept a Churchill bust in the Oval Office. I suspect most people here in the United Kingdom might agree, that as the first African American president it might be appropriate to have a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who would somehow allow me to have the privilege of holding this office.”
Over the years, politicians and social activists across the globe have been positively disposed towards Winston Churchill, demonstrating their approval of the wartime hero in spoken and written speeches. For instance, President Dwight Eisenhower was quoted in1954 as saying that Churchill “comes closest to fulfilling the requirement of the greatness of any individual that I have met in my lifetime.”
When Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, Westminster was sprayed with graffiti during the Black Lives Matter protests last year Johnson, in condemning the attack had described the statue as a permanent reminder of the great leader’s achievement in saving the country and Europe from fascist and racist tyranny.
Long after his death, many people around the world, including Americans, still adore him particularly for his role in the Second World War. Besides, he is half-American as his mother, Jennie Jerome was born in Brooklyn.
For these reasons, many are left to wonder why a US President would on his first day in office discard such a great symbol of a long-standing relationship as if it were a priority project that had been on his mind long before his formal inauguration into office.
Although 10 Downing Street (the seat of British Government) had dismissed the act as a non-issue, pointing out that Joe Biden is at liberty to decorate his office the way he wants it to be, many still believe that Biden’s act has more to it than meets the eyes.
In a June 8, 2020 article in The Independent touching on the dark side of Winston Churchill, Johann Hari asked: What if, in addition to rousing a nation to save the world from the Nazis, he (Winston Churchill) fought for raw white supremacism and a concentration camp network of his own? According to Hari, “this question burns through Richard Toye’s new history, Churchill’s Empire, and is even seeping into the Oval Office.
“George W Bush,” says Hari, “left a bust of Churchill near his desk in the White House, in an attempt to associate himself with the war leader’s heroic stand against fascism. Barack Obama had it returned to Britain. It’s not hard to guess why: his Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and was tortured on Churchill’s watch, for resisting Churchill’s empire.
Winston Churchill was said to have made numerous explicit statements on race throughout his life, “which have been considered to have contributed to his decisions and actions in British politics and in office.
From the late 20th century onwards, increasing awareness of these attitudes resulted in the reappraisal of both his life achievements and his work by both British historians and the British public, and the reappraisal of his status as one of Britain’s most celebrated leaders.
Wikipedia, on its own part, documents that “criticism began mounting in 2005, 40 years after Winston Churchill’s death. Thabo Mbeki, the then President of South Africa, said his attitude toward Blacks was racist and patronising. That complaint was shared by critics such as Clive Ponting. Historian Roland Quinault states that “Even some historians otherwise sympathetic to Churchill have concluded that he was blind to the problems of black people.”
After removing Winston Churchill’s bust, Joseph Biden installed a bust of Cesar Chavez, the Latino American civil rights activist, some family photos and sculptures of civil rights icons such as Martin Luther King Jnr., Rosa Parks, and Robert F. Kennedy.
Vanguard News Nigeria