A Contextualization of My Response to Marc Quinn’s Statue of Jen Reid
Sutapa Biswas reflects on the events that led to the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol and comments on Marc Quinn’s statue of Jen Reid.
VASW has reached out to members of the regional and national visual arts community to platform and share the ongoing discussions in response to Marc Quinn's A Surge of Power (Jen Reid). The sculpture, positioned on a plinth in Bristol in place of slave-trader Edward Colston, was guerrilla installed on 15th July and removed by the city council the following morning.
Sutapa Biswas' article is an extension of her social media post, in which Biswas reflects on the response of artist Larry Seinti Achiampong. Whilst a fellow artist’s voice leads Biswas’ account, her extended analysis and reflection highlights the value of platforming and continuing conversations as allies.
We acknowledge that this discussion is still ongoing, and warmly welcome further voices, particularly from Black communities, to share their responses.
Over the past months as the ravages of a pandemic took hold, with the exception of a few nation states, we witnessed governments in the global north respond to the horrific crisis by prioritising capitalism over the lives and well-being of regular people and tax payers; the world changed forever. As horrified as we were by the indifference of many governments and leaders to the impact of the death of tens of thousands from the pandemic and its impact on large swathes of its population, in brief many viewed this ‘cold-hearted’ response as being symptomatic of a ruling order that for centuries has placed at its centre a brutal free-market economy and continuation of what in effect remains a barbaric colonial enterprise. A ruling order in which poverty levels that are highest amongst BIPOC communities across the globe are clear indicators of the systemic / structural racism, and racial capitalism that continues to drive the quality of our lives (existence) daily.
In the context of the above as this global pandemic brought to us a moment of suspended animation in which to reflect on the inequities of life and justice, on 25 May 2020 via social media, in horror we witnessed footage of George Floyd a Black American man being murdered by a white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, USA. In 8 minutes 48 seconds, in plain view the breath was brutally stolen from George Floyd’s living body. This horrific murder and lynching came in the wake of another fatal shooting, this time of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency medical technician, by Louisville Metro Police Department officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove on March 13, 2020. These murders exemplifying a long history of brutal state and police violence against BIPOC human beings in the US, prompted worldwide outrage and condemnation. Massive protests against the police brutality and state violence of BIPOC peoples, structural racism and racial capitalism, erupted in cities across the globe under the umbrella of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Taking place in the midst of a pandemic, these protests marked what has been described by Angela Yvonne Davis (and many others) as “feeling different” and of a different magnitude to the protests of the civil rights era - citing the painting of ‘Black Lives Matter’ onto a main arterial route to The Whitehouse as an example of the difference.
In Britain, following the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor amongst other factors, Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations took place in major cities throughout.
On 7 June 2020, during Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol, the statue of Edward Colston, a monument to a barbarous 17th Century slave trader whose vast wealth was built on the profits of free-market economy and racialised capitalism was pulled down, rolled, pushed and dragged to the harbour where he was duly thrown into the depths of the city’s river. Erected over a one hundred and seventy years after Colston’s death, his statue was at the heart of a long-standing campaign by many Bristolians to have it removed from a civic public space in the city centre. In the aftermath of the pulling down of Colston’s statue from its plinth, we witnessed a number of colonial statues in various parts of the globe daubed in paint and subsequently dismantled to be housed in museums - for example the statue of the brutal and barbarous Belgian King Leopold II. These events were all prominent headline news, and simultaneously occupied centre stage and ‘went viral’ in discussions across social media platforms.
As Black Lives Matter protests continued to be centre stage in the media as elsewhere, on 15 June 2020, a white British artist (once YBA) courted by the white mainstream art establishment, decided in a seemingly (‘not’) clandestine move to erect on the now empty Bristol plinth that once supported the statue of Colston, a sculpture of his own. His subject, a black British woman Jen Reid whose photograph of her standing on the empty plinth immediately following the pulling down of Colston’s statue by protesting crowds, went viral.
For me, Quinn’s respond was an example of a double bind, the kind that those in positions of power are able to exploit to their own personal advantage and gain. In response to Quinn’s actions, and in support of a statement by the young black British artist Larry Seinti Achiampong on twitter, this is what I wrote:
"Larry is correct here. The statue does look great. And this, of course, is something that can’t be contested because the sitter/model for the statue is herself beautiful and did an amazing thing in occupying the podium at the point that Colston’s statue was removed on that historic day and moment. It said a great deal. As did the removal of that statue. But what is central to the BLM protests is the demand for a redistribution of wealth and power. As I was watched the events of the Colston statue being pulled down, reading on a number of social media threads upon seeing the image of Jen Reid on the plinth “what a great monument that would make by way of replacing Colston”, I thought the exact same thing. Quinn heard, read, thought the same thing. But what separates his being able to action the making and situating of this statue, let alone doing the PR exercise that entails a Channel 4 crew arriving at 3:00 am in the morning to prepare for a 5:00 am ‘lift off’ (i.e. the fixing of Quinn’s statue to the plinth once erected for the memorial to the slave trader Colston) is that as the Channel 4 footage shows, Quinn already courted by the very cultural UK system that is historically structurally racist has all the finances and ‘connections’ necessary to not only make this work but to undertake an apparently under the radar act of installing a great huge heavy sculpture using cranes in the middle of Bristol at dawn. It is a double bind. The kind of ‘coup’ that we’ve seen across the globe supported by far-right corporations and governments to suppress socialist ideas and socialist grassroots movements. For Quinn and his commercial dealers, it’s a win, win situation.
The history of creating monuments in the UK made by White artists under the patronage of colonial governments and heads of states shipped out to the far reaches of its empires (often at key moments of decline) is a long one. You’ve only to look at the statues erected across the length and breadth of India and other parts of the globe to see that. It was an industry of already colonial proportions that predates Quinn’s sculpture. And to this extent, for me drawing attention to this fact is the only good thing to come out of this. Whilst it’s good to see the beauty and power of Jen Reid immortalised as a monument, it was an opportunistic venture supported by venture capitalism and the very inequities of a system that has for 5 long centuries (over 500 years) practiced racialised capitalism, and oppressed Black, Brown, POC people. Good, it’s caused discussion and put BLM at the heart of it again. But be under no illusion that Quinn is our hero. If he was, why did it take him so long to allegedly get “woke”? I also noted in his interview with C4News, that Quinn didn’t take the opportunity to contextualise his motives by referencing CLR James, or Stuart Hall, or Kehinde Whiley’s recent statue of a Black man on horseback in the States, or indeed a whole host of other public artworks or artworks or literature by Black, Brown and POC writers or the artists who’ve similarly attempted to interject our otherwise unheard voices into public and other spaces, who helped him [Quinn] ‘get woke’. What Quinn did was to attempt to claim victory and credit for a moment in British history that he has played no part in supporting for the past 30 years of his lucrative career. I’m glad this happened. This is Quinn’s equivalent of ‘an own goal’. I sincerely hope that if the UK art world is looking and even thinking it will look long and hard about the part it itself has played in sustaining a structurally racist system through the arm of ‘culture’.
For Quinn and his commercial dealers, it’s a win, win situation.
And those of us who’ve been fighting this battle to dismantle the endemic structural racism of our cultural and education system in ethical ways for decades now, alongside younger generations, and have suffered the consequential indignities of structural racism, are angry – and rightly so we are angry."