Where a painful reminder of slavery and racial oppression used to stand, a hopeful symbol of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has risen. This morning, July 15, artist Marc Quinn replaced an 18-feet bronze of Edward Colston, a 17th-century Member of Parliament who trafficked enslaved Africans. The monument was toppled by protesters in Bristol last month and was replaced with Quinn’s own sculpture of activist Jen Reid.
Quinn told the BBC that he was inspired to create the work after seeing a photograph of Reid standing on top of the empty plinth, her fist raised in the air, during a protest against police brutality in the UK city on June 7. Like dozens of other contentious monuments that met similar fates in recent weeks, Colston’s was removed by demonstrators and dumped in a harbor. The stirring image of Reid was taken by her husband and posted on social media, where it circulated widely. When Quinn came across it, he and contacted Reid to pose for him so he could recreate her likeness in resin and steel.
In a clandestine early morning incursion, Quinn and a team of 10 assistants erected the statue, “A Surge of Power (Jen Reid)” (2020) without city authorities’ approval.
The title, he explains in an Instagram post, comes from Reid’s own description of her experience standing on the plinth: “It was like an electrical charge of power was running through me. My immediate thoughts were for the enslaved people who died at the hands of Colston and to give them power. I wanted to give George Floyd power, I wanted to give power to Black people like me who have suffered injustices and inequality. A surge of power out to them all.”
Quinn, who emerged as part of the 1980s movement known as the Young British Artists, is best known for works involving human blood, such as a polemical forthcoming installation featuring the blood of refugees and celebrities set to open in 2021 outside the New York Public Library.
In an interview with the New York Times, Quinn said that Reid produced the iconic image, and he was “just amplifying the moment she created.” He also said that he hopes the work will foment further dialogue about the way in which statues commemorate people, and that it can stay up long enough to spark that conversation.
Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, however, was quick to speak out against the statue’s unlawful installation.
“I understand people want expression, but the statue has been put up without permission,” he said in a tweet this morning. “Anything put on the plinth outside of the process we’ve put in place will have to be removed.”
In the comments, some pleaded for the sculpture to remain.
“Leave it for a year please – monstrous Colston was there for years,” reads one reply.
The dismantling of Colston’s statue, which was fished from the harbor and stored for safekeeping at the mayor’s request, prompted heated debate about its replacement. A petition asking for a monument to Black civil rights activist Paul Stephenson to stand in its place garnered more than 75,000 signatures.
According to Bristol Museums, Colston was an active member of the governing body of the London-based Royal African Company, which trafficked enslaved Africans. The mayor said the toppled monument will likely remain housed in a local museum and be included in an exhibit about about the history of the slave trade in Bristol.
“I walked past his statue every day for the last five years,” Reid, a descendant of Jamaican immigrants, told the Times. “It’s an effrontery to have a slave master you have to walk past everyday.”