There’s a lookout stationed at the end of Colston Street and a load of people, some dressed in hi-vis vests, are gathering at a nearby restaurant. Then, in the dawn light, a statue concealed in plastic wrapping can be seen approaching on a hiab truck. It turns the corner and reverses towards the plinth where the statue of Edward Colston once stood. There’s a sense of mischief in the air on this bright clear morning in Bristol – and revolution.
The team spring into action and, minutes later, a new statue has been placed on the spot where Colston’s stood and swiftly unwrapped. It’s of a young black woman, her fist raised in a black power salute. “There’s a new woman in power!” a cyclist shouts as he turns the bend. On Twitter, responses start coming in fast. Dr Lola Solebo writes: “Am waking my girls up early so I can show them this. What a thing of beauty. What a thing to wake up to.”
Another woman is standing by the plinth. “I feel full of pride, so, so full of pride,” she says, looking up at the sculpture. It’s of her.
Rewind a few weeks and this same woman is knocking at the door of an artist’s studio, dressed in a face mask. She’s hurried in and asked to stand on a podium, with her legs slightly apart and her fist in the air. She’s re-enacting the black power salute she made on the plinth of Edward Colston’s statue on 7 June, just after protesters pulled the slave-trader’s likeness down. A hi-tech, 3D scanning machine whirrs into life, its 201 cameras capturing her defiant pose, and every thread of her clothes, which are the same ones she wore on that tumultuous Sunday.
The woman’s name is Jen Reid and this scene was taking place in the studio of artist Marc Quinn. And now today, Reid stands once again on that plinth, but rendered in black resin – Quinn’s own guerrilla-style response to the much debated question of what should replace the statue, which ended up in the waters of Bristol harbour.
It’s an extraordinarily powerful sight, the early morning light reflecting on the smooth, ebony surface of the statue, which has just been placed on the plinth. The sense of triumph in the air finds a perfect echo in Reid’s pose. That fist, balled up and thrown into the air, exerting energy into the heavens and casting the psychological pressure of systemic racism into the ether, calling for action and for others to stand with her, with us. From the coils of her afro to the wrinkles in her skin as she clenches her fist, the emotion is potent and palpable.
It all began with a post on Instagram by @biggiesnug, showing Reid on the plinth with the caption: “My wife. My life. She matters.” The post was soon liked by @marcquinnart, Quinn’s Instagram account and, after a lot of organising, this powerful moment was recreated in his studio: first 3D-printed in sections, then cast in resin, before being meticulously put together by Quinn’s team of craftsmen. “Posing for the sculpture,” says Reid, “brought back all the memories of getting on the plinth. The feelings and emotions. I felt powerful.”
The toppling of Colston’s statue gave the Black Lives Matter movement a moment of symbolism that will reverberate for years. As George Floyd’s last words – “I can’t breathe” – ricocheted around the world, Bristol protesters took to the streets with a newfound energy. Two protesters leapt up with a length of rope, others pulled and soon Colston, who had glared down at the city since 1895, was gone. Reid’s stand instantly felt as if it should be part of our visual lexicon, a vital piece of the history lesson about slavery long overdue in Britain. Quinn agrees.
“Racism,” the artist says, “is a huge problem, a virus that needs to be addressed. I hope this sculpture will continue that dialogue, keep it in the forefront of people’s minds, be an energy conductor. The image created by Jen that day – when she stood on the plinth with all the hope of the future of the world flowing through her – made the possibility of greater change feel more real than it has before.”
Quinn, who has called his work A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020, continues: “When I saw the picture of Jen on Instagram, I immediately thought it would be great to immortalise that moment. The image is a silhouette: she looked like a sculpture already. I’ve been making portraits of refugees using 3D scanning over the last year and applied the same technology to this.”
The Instagram image shows Reid’s outline against the grey Bristol sky, with cardboard signs scattered around the plinth, which has been covered in graffiti. One sign reads: “He who accepts evil without protesting against it is co-operating with it.” Perhaps this message touched Quinn? As a celebrated white male artist, he could be criticised for inserting himself into the debate. He recalls a quote from Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The artist adds: “White people in positions of power need to speak up and support change in the way black people are treated, their positions in society. I have been listening and learning and one of the phrases that really struck me was, ‘White silence is violence.’”
Quinn is no newcomer to plinths. In 2004, he became the first artist to be commissioned for the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, placing Alison Lapper Pregnant on the vacant site, a statue of the artist who was born without arms and with shortened legs. “The sculpture contributed to moving the narrative around disability forward in the UK,” Quinn says. “The great thing about the public realm is that it is very democratic and accessible. Museums can be very elite spaces. This reaches everyone.”
On the subject of whether white artists should write these stories, Reid says: “I wanted to do this with Marc Quinn as he’s always cared about pushing inclusion to the forefront and making people think. It’s not about black or white. If people want to stand by me, that’s great.”
The statue of Colston was created by a white man, John Cassidy, to commemorate a white slave-trader. Now the plinth is occupied by the work of a white artist who feels duty bound to correct the situation, to amplify voices that have been silenced for so long. It’s reminiscent of US film-maker Bree Newsome’s athletic act of protest. In 2015, Newsome scaled a flagpole to remove the Confederate flag hanging in the South Carolina state house grounds. She told the Washington Post: “We needed somebody who could help me over the fence. Be a lookout. We decided it should be a white man … because we wanted to communicate it’s not just the role of the people who are oppressed, but it’s also on the people who have benefited from oppression who have to be part of the process.”
Many have described finding the Colston statue an affront to the black citizens of Bristol. “Having to see that statue daily does something to you,” says Reid. “Knowing what Colston represented, I felt compelled to take a stand and raise my fist in empowerment for the slaves who died at his hands. It was like an electrical surge of power was running through me as I took the plinth in memory of George Floyd, and for every black person killed by police for being black, and those who face injustice daily based on the colour of their skin.”
She pauses and adds: “To those who are listening, keep talking, keep righting wrongs when you see them. Keep educating those that want to listen. Unlike Black History Month, I hope this statue addresses blackness every day.”
The question of removing the Colston statue was not a new one. Petitions had been signed, meetings had been held. The artist Hew Locke, in his 2006 series Restoration, introduced his own response. In a photographic work called Colston, Locke covered the statue in trinkets, beads and cowrie shells, which were used as currency to trade slaves.
In terms of getting Quinn’s sculpture on to the plinth, the project took on a Mission Impossible feel. NDAs were signed, late-night rendezvous arranged. Quinn has not received permission to put the sculpture up, but he is also not breaking any laws. His team transported the artwork from the workshop on a truck with a built-in crane to lift it up on to the plinth. The bottom of the sculpture is designed to sit securely without drilling, gluing or damage to the plinth. In many ways, proceeding without permission makes this a special sort of art anarchism, entering the realm of activism.
How will people react? How will the police react? Quinn says a big motivation for the project is to spark debate, keep the attention on this vital issue, and see how everyone reacts. “I guess that includes the authorities, too,” he says.
The philosopher Jürgen Habermas wrote about how institutions and nations suffer an erosion of legitimacy over time if they do not robustly interrogate themselves. Perhaps statues should be part of this interrogation. Monuments, after all, are symbols of the systems we live in. Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020 is like a modern Statue of Liberty. Indeed, Lady Liberty was originally designed to celebrate freed slaves.
In the US, statues continue to fall. This replacement by Quinn and Reid should hopefully catalyse a call for action, for a new world, for a new sculptural legacy. Today, as Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020 stands on its plinth, the Colston statue sits on a concrete floor in a wooden container locked up by the council, covered in scratches from where it was dragged across the asphalt, hands and face spray-painted red for blood. That’s karma for you.