Decolonising Art History: Statue of Black Lives Matter Protestor Jen Reid removed

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At 5:20 am on Wednesday 16th July, notorious YBA sculptor Marc Quinn and his crew mounted a temporary sculpture atop the plinth where a bronze statue of 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston once stood. 

Quinn’s black resin statue captures the spontaneous, defiant moment where a young, black woman raised her hand in a powerful fist atop Colston’s plinth. The subject is Jen Reid, one of the protestors who attended the dismantling of Colston’s statue on Sunday 7th June. Reid uploaded an image of herself on Instagram, which was swiftly liked by Quinn. A working relationship was quickly established, resulting in this momentous, era-defining sculpture, titled ‘A Surge of Power (Jen Reid)’.

“We want to keep highlighting the unacceptable problem of institutionalised and systemic racism that everyone has a duty to face up to.”

Marc Quinn

Quinn is best known for ‘Self’, a controversial sculpture series of his face, constructed from ten pints of his own blood. This debuted at Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition 1997, which exclusively displayed works by the ‘YBAs’ (Young British Artists) who were known for their controversial and inflammatory works in the 1990s.

This guerrilla artwork is perhaps Quinn’s most politically infused, emblematising the momentous toppling of Colston’s statue. This widely reported moment marked the beginning of the decolonisation of English towns and cities. A series of public sculptures, including one of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, have since been removed.

Quinn intentionally designed a base that would balance on Colston’s plinth, rather than permanently securing it. Despite the removal of the Grade-II listed sculpture, the original Portland stone plinth remains relatively untarnished. In particular, the original dedication remains intact, and reads: “ERECTED BY CITIZENS OF BRISTOL AS A MEMORIAL OF ONE OF THE MOST VIRTUOUS AND WISE SONS OF THEIR CITY”, creating a sardonic juxtaposition. Thus, Quinn’s sculpture demarcates the importance of recontextualising rather than erasing the past.

“The sculpture is not a permanent solution to what should be there.”

Marc Quinn

With this sculpture, Quinn utilises sculpture to succinctly deliver a political message in the public domain. Reid’s defiant stance defies Rees’ claim that “those who feel that in its removal, they’ve lost a piece of the Bristol they know and therefore themselves”, encouraging citizens to reconsider Bristol’s history. Nonetheless, as the Mayor of Bristol highlights, the sculpture is ‘the work and decision of a London-based artist’ and therefore may not directly reflect the Bristolian stance towards Colston’s removal.

“It was not requested, and permission was not given for it to be installed.”

The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees

Shortly after its instalment, the statue of Jen Reid was removed by the Bristol City Council. They have announced that it can be collected by Quinn or will become a part of the city’s art collection. It was decided beforehand that if it were sold, the money would be donated to two charities chosen by Jen Reid – Cargo Classroom and The Black Curriculum. Both organisations seek to address the lack of British Black History in the national curriculum.

It is unclear at this stage what a permanent solution will be. The best solution may be to leave the plinth empty as a monument to the courage of the protestors who removed Colston’s statue. This has since been retrieved from the harbour and moved to an undisclosed location to be restored before being moved to a museum. The statue will be displayed alongside protest banners and the rope that was used to topple it.

The Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees has concluded that “the future of the plinth and what is installed on it must be decided by the people of Bristol”. Fundamentally, Quinn’s work should be viewed as a political expression of the current climate, rather than an artwork that can be curated in a gallery space if it is commodified.

Image: Keir Gravil via Creative Commons

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