Race and Public Space

2020 will be remembered for many reasons and one of the most significant will be the Black Lives Matter protests around the globe. British people marched in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and big UK protests trended on social media. The media widely reported when protestors pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston. Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, was reported as saying he felt no “sense of loss,” and the action brought into focus the way in which statues, plaques and street names largely reflect and glorify the United Kingdom’s imperial past. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, has set up the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm to review the city’s landmarks – including murals, street art, street names, statues and other memorials – and consider which legacies should be celebrated before making recommendations regarding diversity and links to slavery. Yet, Black Lives Matter events in the UK are now rarely in the news and social media is focused on the many other events unfolding globally and across the country. Whilst Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an inquiry into racial inequality he also described the UK is not “a racist country” and used “thuggery” to describe protesters. Labour leader Keir Starmer saying Black Lives Matter was a “moment.” The statue of slave trader Colston was replaced with a sculpture of one of the protesters who toppled the statue, Jen Reid, who was photographed standing on the plinth with her fist raised. However, as Bristol’s Mayor pointed out, the sculpture was “the work and decision of a London-based artist,” and added: “It was not requested, and permission was not given for it to be installed.” Rees added, “the future of the plinth and what is installed on it must be decided by the people of Bristol”. The question of how the UK and its citizens engage with and respond to the issue of race and space through art involves open and urgent issues. Monuments, it has been pointed out, may be understood as ruins, which symbolise the destructive force of conquest. What, it is asked, can be salvaged from the framework of monumentalism? As Chistopher Woodward observes, “When we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future” and so the answer to these issues matters both in terms of what has happened and for what will have happened in the future.

To engage with such questions involves interrogating who commissions, controls, and maintains not only monuments and other works of art but also the spaces in which they are located (e.g. squares, museums, and galleries).  A politics of memory is inherent in the laws, regulations and decisions that are made, which determine how, what, where and who is displayed and commemorated. An array of issues arise that encompass what values and structures are applied to marginalize and exclude, or  include and foreground what is remembered. Such concerns may be articulated in terms of planning decisions in which architecture, statues and intangible practices become part of the “valorisation of consumption,” by promoting certain cultural and historical narratives that are valued for the way in which they bolster national identity and attract tourism. Yet there is risk if the focus is allowed to remain situated in the present and framed in terms of individual objects, places and times. There is a system of valorisation is at play, which is historically inextricably entangled with the historical aspirations and actions of European imperialism. The recognition of people, objects and images within this framework constitutes, “a system of representation which in turn endows each object with an evolutionary character and weight.” Global cultures, societies and histories are positioned and valued by reference to the Enlightenment project and its values. To replace Colston with Reid; slaver with activist, is not sufficient to disrupt rather than perpetuate such a system and its set of norms in terms of which decisions are made that people on plinths matter. The Tate Galleries’ acknowledgement that, “the sugar industry on which both the Tate and the Lyle firms […] were built in the 19th century was itself absolutely constructed on the foundation of slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries” may be interrogated for the significance of its impact. Our societies and their futures do not exist discretely from the material conditions by which memories are structured and valued.  Addressing the extent to which the spaces of art and aesthetics are co-implicated with the on-going perpetuation of racism is not simply a matter of individual times, places, and objects but networks of material relationships. 

For more information on this project please contact jp5641@nyu.edu.

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