Embodying the spirit of America, this Día de los Muertos figure brandishes a flag of freedom and sword of war.
The United States is a relatively young country, and although it has had an eventful history in its 200-odd years as a nation, it does not have a great amount of mythology in comparison to other, more ancient civilizations (not counting Native Americans, of which the less is said about, the less depressing a discussion of American history will be). Part of it is the short amount of time the U.S. has been around for; culture and folklore develop over generations and across centuries. But another reason could be the relative modernity in which this nation was founded. Our scientific understanding of the world is forever growing (faster and faster, it seems), and as the world becomes a more concrete and explainable realm, our preoccupation with legendary figures and tall tales has conversely, shrunk.
America of course has its own collection of legendary figures of varying degrees of historical accuracy. But it pales in comparison to the rich mythological pantheons of other, older cultures from Africa, Asia, and Europe. Civilizations such as the Chinese or Greek have complex and interweaving casts of characters that would make the most learned Marvel or DC Comics reader’s head spin. Because of our dearth of of mythological cornerstones, I feel like the few existing aspects of American folklore should be cherished and celebrated that much more.
Enter the female personification of America! Lady Liberty, right? No, Columbia!
Literally meaning “Land of Columbus,” Columbia predates the actual founding of The United States itself. It was a poetic and literary term for the New World, first appearing in the early 18th century. It came to be the female personification of this land in the same tradition of Brittania for England, or Marianne for France. She was featured in art and literature up until the early 20th century, after which figures of Lady Liberty (based on the then newly-gifted Statue of Liberty) and eventually Uncle Sam overtook her in popularity. Columbia is now a mostly-forgotten artifact of American history and folklore.
Columbia’s obscurity is somewhat odd considering the highly-visible institutions and places named after her – Columbia University, Columbia Pictures, and of course, our nation’s capital. Indeed, I never gave the name much thought despite these multiple instances. It was this strange dichotomy that fascinated me about her as a cultural figure and motivated me to make her the subject of a 4th of July-themed piece.
It was originally started to coincide with a 4th event but not actually finished until the end of August (timeliness!). I wanted to pay homage to her as a Day of the Dead figure, but the idea took a great deal of time and consideration in my head long before I put pencil to paper. I went through many iterations of the concept, including some sort of fusion between American and Mexican cultures/histories (which still exists because of the face paint), but that proved to be too large and unfocused of an idea for me to handle. So I returned to the idea of Columbia herself and got to drawing.
There isn’t a single consistent representation of Columbia, so I drew from elements I liked in the various images I turned up in my searches (one in particular was of a photo of a costumed woman protesting for women’s rights in the early 20th century—badass!). In keeping with her role as this nation’s personification, I imagined her as half envoy, half warrior. I wanted a sword (representing force/use of military) to be included, but lowered and mostly out of the way. I would have liked to have included an olive branch, but she only has so many hands.
In addition to being a symbol of the United States itself, I wanted her to be a symbol of female strength, determination, and grace, much in the same vein of other female icons like Rosie the Riveter… or Wonder Woman! Of course, much of my work is predicated on the idea of positive and dignified depictions of women, but I wanted to drive it home even more here as a dedication to those underprivileged groups that have tirelessly fought for equal treatment (and still do to this day).
America is traditionally thought of as a land of peace, freedom, and equality, and although it often (and sadly) falls short of that aspiration, that’s our collective dream. This image is meant to symbolize that ambition and willingness to push forward, despite whatever obstacles exist before us. Columbia may be a forgotten aspect of that American dream, but as long as people keep fighting for justice and fairness regardless of nationality, her call will be answered.