Replacing the Columbus Statue: Christian Casas' Wake Work

A series of stacked boats balanced on two oil barrels explores the immigrant experience and the “hopeful possibilities of what lies ahead.”

Richard Ades
An illustration of Wake Work by Christian Casas

Christian Casas hails from Hialeah, Florida, a city where three-quarters of the residents are Cuban Americans like himself, and where nearly 100 percent speak Spanish. Asked what it was like growing up there, he says it just seemed normal because that was all he knew. It wasn’t until the first-generation American moved to Utah in his early 20s that he realized how much his upbringing separated him from fellow citizens. 

“I didn’t see myself in Salt Lake City,” Casas says. “I started to feel very distant culturally, and it made me recede into myself.” It also inspired him to attack this feeling of isolation through the art that was already an important part of his life. 

Now 26 and working toward a master’s degree in sculpture at Ohio State, Casas says he uses art as a way to explore ideas through his specific “lens of the world.” This quest can be seen in his proposed monument, Wake Work, which was jointly inspired by the words of an American author and the images of a prominent Cuban artist. 

The title comes from Christina Sharpe’s 2016 book “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” which examines African American life as seen through various artistic media. “Wake,” as Sharpe uses the word, can mean the watery trail that follows a vessel (a slave ship, for example), a ritual to honor the dead, or it can simply mean to gain consciousness. Casas explains that Sharpe defines “wake work” as the attempt to understand the multiple challenges of being Black in America. 

Christian Casas

As for the sculpture’s image of stacked boats of various types, Casas says it was inspired by Kcho, a Cuban artist who often incorporates such vessels in his work. Boats can have various symbolic meanings in Cuban folklore, but to Casas, as the son of immigrants, they primarily represent the migration of people to America in search of a better life. In light of the recent anti-immigrant sentiment that has grown in some segments of society, Casas feels it’s important to celebrate the key role immigration has always played in America. 

But the monument doesn’t represent only immigrants, he adds. More broadly, it represents everyone’s efforts to deal with their unique challenges. “We all are making do with the conditions we have,” Casas says, “and we try to navigate spaces in order to sustain our own life.”