History, when remembered, is like time travel. It can be exciting tourism, sate curiosity and help us forget today’s toils, but it can also be a treasure hunt for knowledge, providing us with a perspective on the present. If we are lucky, we leave a little wiser. But be careful; instead of awe, you may find a very different type of treasure – outrage.
Ousmane Sow’s exhibition, The Battle of Little Big Horn, set in the fortified village of Mont-Dauphin in France, provides awe in spades – at the astonishing power of Ousmane’s sculptures – as well as outrage – at the human tragedy from another continent and another time that resonates through time and across oceans to us, now.
First, the awe. Ousmane Sow’s exhibit is of his larger-than-life Sioux and Cheyenne Indians battling to the death the US Federal army in 1876. Many readers will feel they know of The Battle of Little Big Horn, as the words ring a bell, as does Custer’s Last Stand; Few know that it was named the Battle of the Greasy Grass by the winners of the battle and the losers of the war. History, written by the winner, is often simplified to the numbers of dead, who won and why, and how an event nudged history’s flow. In Ousmane Sow’s muscled, twisted bodies of men and horses, caught in the instant of battle with guns drawn, men fallen, horses stumbling, we feel the pain, the anger, the courage, the desperation of a people fighting for their home and survival, and another for primacy and domination.
Next, the outrage. The exhibition doesn’t sugar-coat history. It presents the raw fight and death. Custer and his men died, and Crazy Horse and the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapno won this battle of The Great Sioux War of 1876. The victory is deeply hollow, as battle by battle, death by death, law by law, swept across the lands – a cultural, linguistic, peoples’ genocide of the march of colonialism, greed, prejudice and blindness. This didn’t need to happen the way it did. But it did, like so many other chapters of history.
We can say this was a misery of the past, of other times when rules were different, and we should look forward, not back. But this is self-willed blindness and wilful denial. It doesn’t lead to wisdom or reconciliation. We need to stare history in the face, feel it, own it, learn from it, and act. See this exhibition, and you may shout in your head – Never again! Never again!
Ousmane Sow’s The Battle of Little Big Horn is art – not in the sense of aesthetic and beautiful (though it is) or as the prowess of technical brilliance, but as a language whose visceral message speaks straight to heart. Once you’ve seen it, it won’t let you go. Outrage is a hard treasure that makes one grow.
The exhibition is still on at Mont-Dauphin and hosted by The National Monuments Centre. The landscape is beautiful, the village provides another echo of history, and The Battle of Little Big Horn isan opportunity for time travel thanks to the inimitable Ousmane Sow.You can also do a virtual tour of the Maison Ousmane Sow to whet your appetite for travelling to see the real thing and embracing awe and outrage. There is nothing like standing near the giants, feeling their presence, and hearing the message they have for us. Thank you, Ousmane Sow.