What to do with Lafayette’s most prominent statue of a Confederate general and slave owner is back as a big topic of discussion. Demonstrators gathered around the statue honoring Gen. Alfred Mouton last week in an event celebrating Juneteenth — a holiday marking the end of slavery in America — to demand it be moved. Whether it can be moved is a question currently at the center of a lawsuit. But one local artist is using the nearly 100-year-old statue itself as a canvas to project her views on the statue and what it stands for — literally.
Recently, professional photographer and graphic designer Lessie LeBlanc-Melancon has set up her equipment on Mouton’s green Downtown to project a slideshow featuring images of George Floyd — the black man suffocated to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer — other victims of police violence, images of the nation’s protests and designs supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. It started small and grew into an ongoing project.
“I thought I’d project on the statue a few times, then that would be the end of it,” LeBlanc-Melancon says. “But after the first night, I realized that this little project had the potential to go much further, so I’m running with it.”
She now plans on the art installation every Saturday night for the next four weeks as well as a few pop-up installations.
LeBlanc-Melancon decided something needed to be done with the statue after closely following Move the Mindset, a local organization whose mission is to have Jim Crow-era monuments removed. Similar monuments to the Confederacy have toppled around the country as Americans have risen in protest of police brutality and racism in the wake of Floyd’s death and the killings of other black Americans at the hands of police.
“Obviously, I’m in favor of removing the Mouton statue. As such, I’ve been closely following Move the Mindset’s legal efforts to lift the old injunction, which bars the statue from being moved from its current position,” says LeBlanc-Melancon. “One day, I was randomly pondering how one could possibly get around the injunction and realized that I needed to be thinking not about what we can’t do with the statue, but what we can.”
Out of this idea, her art installation was born. The slideshow is provocative. And it has provoked a wide range of responses, including the attention of the Lafayette Police Department.
While on site, LeBlanc-Melancon has frequently had insults and jeers hurled at her from people passing by. Some have even gone as far as to call the police, fabricating complaints that people were climbing on the statue. “Luckily, officers quickly realized that the situation was not as it had been reported and immediately backed down,” she says.
However, at the Juneteenth celebration Friday, things escalated. Several police officers approached LeBlanc-Melancon and asked that the projector be removed. “I asked him if my actions were breaking any laws, and he couldn’t answer the question. The next thing I know, the cops start closing in on us, and additional units arrive on scene,” continues LeBlanc-Melancon.
As many as a dozen officers arrived after the initial response, including interim Chief Scott Morgan who objected to her blocking the statue’s spotlights to allow her projections to come into view. Attorney Jerome Moroux, who happened to be dining across the street, walked over to join the conversation and argue her right to the public space. After a patient discussion, Morgan conceded there was no legal basis to remove LeBlanc-Melancon’s covers from the spotlights.
“Not only did [Moroux] absolutely school those officers on the rule of law, but he physically climbed through the bushes and put my light shields back up himself. If it weren’t for him, I’m certain that I would have been arrested on fabricated charges last night,” says LeBlanc-Melancon. Instead, the situation diffused peacefully.
LeBlanc-Melancon says she hasn’t faced any opposition from the LPD since Friday. She hopes her project helps create a safer space that other local artists feel comfortable coming into and participating in, particularly those artists who are people of color.
“Clearly, I’m making people uncomfortable and that’s kinda what it’s about,” she says. “And I definitely am open to similar projects in the future.”
Ultimately, she hopes to bring awareness to Move the Mindset’s mission to have the statue removed. In the meantime, she’s OK with the push back.
“I’m here to push limits,” she says. “I feel that my ‘white lady’ status affords me a layer of protection that other more marginalized people wouldn’t have in the same situation, so I’ve decided to use that privilege to test the constitutional waters, so to speak.”
To contact Lessie LeBlanc-Melancon for more info on how to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org.