When Confederate statues fall, this artist is there to ‘commemorate this time of change’

Artist Ben Hamburger’s “Confederate Women,” oil on panel, 16in x 20in.
Artist Ben Hamburger’s “Confederate Women,” oil on panel, 16in x 20in.

In recent years, artist Ben Hamburger has lived in the Triangle, New Orleans and Baltimore, three places that would not seem to have much in common. But they’ve all had controversies over Confederate monuments.

So Hamburger, a 30-year-old Maryland native, starting making paintings inspired by the controversy, with his own spin: capturing the moments when those statues came down.

“I found it really interesting and even sort of exciting, culturally,” said Hamburger in his Chapel Hill studio. “Thinking about these statues as public symbols, how powerful they were and how much energy they were creating, I was driven to document that through painting. It became my way to engage more deeply and learn more about what was going on with these monuments.”

Hamburger has completed six paintings in the series, which have been on display in various venues. They capture the Confederate Women’s Monument being hauled off in Baltimore, and a statue of Jefferson Davis coming down in New Orleans.

Artist Ben Hamburger’s “Silent Sam,”36x24in, oil on canvas. Ben Hamburger

Locally, Hamburger’s paintings depict the statue of a Confederate soldier known as Silent Sam that stood on the UNC campus until last year as well as the Confederate soldier statue at the Durham County Courthouse that crumpled when protestors pulled it down in the summer of 2017.

Silent Sam was on display for more than a century. At the original 1913 dedication, UNC trustee and Confederate veteran Julian Carr made a speech in which he boasted of having “horse-whipped a negro wench ... because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”

The statue was a flashpoint for protests for years before protesters pulled it down in August. Demonstrators from both sides continued gathering around the empty pedestal until Jan. 15, when then-UNC Chancellor Carol Folt ordered it permanently off-campus in her last act before resigning.

“I learned a lot about the history and why they were put up,” Hamburger said. “Especially Silent Sam, the speech given when it was erected. These statues coincided with civil rights, changes happening in the country. There have been long-standing activist movements fighting them. This is not something new.”

Nevertheless, Hamburger doesn’t think his paintings take a partisan viewpoint.

“In a lot of ways, they’re neutral and documentary, leaving people to draw their own meaning,” he said. “Some people on Instagram have commented that taking them down destroys our history — or laughed at the fact that someone took the time to paint them coming down. My hope is that they commemorate this time of change and provide a different outlet for people to think about and discuss it.”

Hamburger himself was moved to teach a class for kids at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, designing monuments and explaining what they are and why they matter.

Artist Ben Hamburger at his Chapel Hill studio Jan. 28, 2019. Hamburger has been painting confederate statues in Chapel Hill, Durham, Baltimore and New Orleans at the moment of their end. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Hamburger is moving to Asheville soon, and his Confederate statue paintings aren’t scheduled for local display. His final show before leaving the Triangle is this month — a set of unrelated paintings titled “Medicine Cabinet” — in the lobby of the ArtsCenter.

He’s not sure when his Confederate statue paintings might be on display next, or if he’ll be moved to paint more of them.

But the controversy does not seem to be dying down.

“It’s easy for people to be like, ‘Objects don’t matter, it’s just a statue, a flag, a picture,’ ” Hamburger said. “That’s an easy stance to take, and convincing those people that inanimate objects do matter can be an impossible task.”


For more on Ben Hamburger and his art, go to benhamburgerart.com.

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David Menconi has covered music and the arts for The News & Observer since 1991. He can be reached at 919-829-4759 or dmenconi@newsobserver.com.