Public art attests to a political desire to imprint a certain vision of the past on the country’s memoryscape and to anchor it in citizens’ minds and affective registers. Statues, memorials and monuments aim to make permanent – to ‘set in stone’ – a certain view of history, usually in glorious and heroic terms. Hierarchies of all kinds (political, classed, racial, gendered) are reflected in – and reproduced through – public art. What is celebrated or commemorated is as significant as what is forgotten: defeats, reprehensible deeds by the ‘nation’, as well as historically marginalised groups are erased from the material representation of the ‘official story’ and its inventories of valour.
Due to their prominence in public space and their standing in for specific political orders, statues have often been targeted by civic ire during moments of radical political mobilisation. To give just an example, statues of Lenin and Stalin have been falling across the former Eastern bloc since 1956. Democratic societies worth their name have at their disposal a variety of mechanisms through which to mark discontinuity with the problematic pasts congealed in symbolically humiliating statues and monuments, i.e. statues and monuments that represent certain groups as less than human, that glorify former victimizers and their worldviews, or that exclude victims, dissenters and resisters from the historical record. They can museumify or add clarificatory plaques. Most importantly, democracies can and – if they are to preserve their legitimacy – should encourage the pluralisation of the symbolic and discursive space of memory by enabling historically excluded groups to meaningfully contribute to collective processes of narrating the past on an equal footing. A commitment to democratic values requires an inclusive politics of memory, which involves recovering historically erased figures for the nation’s pantheon and repudiating public art that inflicts political violence on certain sectors of the population, perpetuating their domination. Attention to the representativity and ethics of a community’s symbolic space should not, however, be decoupled from attention to the political, social and cultural obstacles – laws, policies, discourses – that determine unequal access to power and resources more generally.
According to historian David Olusoga, Edward Colston oversaw the enslavement of tens of thousands of African people and was responsible for thousands of Black deaths. His statue and name have been dominating the city of Bristol, where his wealth ensured his posterity in the geography and toponymy of the city. Several attempts to remove the statue or have a plaque appended to it faced constant resistance from Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers, an organisation whose history is deeply intertwined with the Atlantic slave trade and who counts among its leaders Cullum McAlpine – one of the key figures behind the scandalous, industrial scale blacklisting of construction workers. This decision not to remove a problematic statue is not unprecedented in the UK: in 2016, Oriel College at Oxford University decided to keep in place a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a notorious racist imperialist, despite strong mobilisation by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. While there was speculation about the costs in financial support from donors that removing the statue might incur, the justification was couched in terms of allowing freedom of thought to flourish. Moreover, the college claimed to have received overwhelming support for keeping it, ‘for a variety of reasons’.
In response to the toppling of Colson’s statue, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel called those involved ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals’. In London, several Tory MPs rushed to wash the graffiti ‘Churchill was a racist’ off the plinth of Churchill’s statue, while The Sun asked its readers to get in touch if they had any information about ‘the vandal’. Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour party condemned the removal of the statue, while clarifying that ‘Stepping back, that statue should have been taken down a long, long time ago. We can’t, in 21st century Britain, have a slaver on a statue. A statue is there to honour people. That statue should have been brought down properly, with consent, and put, I would say, in a museum.’ (emphasis added)
What the recent events and the reactions to the removal illuminate is how closed and exclusionary the space of political memory is in the UK, colonised as it is by a distorted, convenient narrative. The statue could not have been ‘brought down properly, with consent’ as Starmer recommends, for that presupposes that critical and democratic processes of politically reckoning with empire and its reverberations in the present, would have already taken place, symbolically but also institutionally. The statue could not have been removed ‘a long time ago’ given how a mystifying vision of history still underpins school and university curricula and public discourse. As historians, sociologists and political scientists have repeatedly shown over the last few decades, this narrative enables the reproduction of a pernicious, self-serving, trans-generational ignorance about the violence of empire, about decolonisation, about the evolution of citizenship laws since the dissolution of the empire and about how all these factors nurture a present of deep racialised inequalities and exclusions. To put it differently, this struggle has never been only about statues.
Even the meagre efforts to take a symbolic stand on Britain’s participation in the Atlantic slave trade have been utterly wanting and were met with strong resistance. Tony Blair’s 2006 expression of ‘deep sorrow’ for the slave trade 200 years after Britain’s much celebrated de jure – not de facto – abolition thereof in 1807 left out many of the systematic atrocities committed by the British colonisers. Moreover, it foregrounded the supposed pioneering role that Britain played in abolition, and asymmetrically celebrated white abolitionists while effacing the memory of Black resistance. Outraged, Blair’s conservative critics condemned his tarnishing of the country’s image, his incomprehensible and dangerous effort to re-write history and to portray the British Empire as an active force of injustice.
Fourteen years after Blair’s imperfect apology, the institutionalisation of a sanitised narrative of Britain’s past simultaneously underpins and renders invisible systemic racism. It determines whose lives matter, whose lives are grievable (to reference Judith Butler) and whose lives are expendable. Ours is a time marked by the racialised effects of the COVID 19 pandemic (themselves merely a symptom of entrenched socio-economic and health inequality), by the Windrush scandal, by the inhumane effects of successive racialised citizenship laws, by aggressive deportation policies meant to satisfy a white electorate whose fears and aversions have been exacerbated by right wing entrepreneurs of both more and less ‘respectable’ stripes. For all these reasons, Starmer’s hopes about what should have happened to Colson’s statue are completely unfounded. For all these reasons, PM Johnson’s ‘I hear you’ to protesters across the UK sounds hollow. For all these reasons, the commission the Mayor of London established on June 9th to ensure that public landmarks represent London’s diversity is a merely belated and painfully limited mechanism for addressing the enormity of the legitimacy deficit plaguing British democracy. And for all these reasons it is all the more important to collectively recognise how certain aspects of the past are unforgettable for large swathes of British citizens, who constantly live with the repercussions of a past that refuses to pass – not only in the configuration of the country’s memoryscape, but in the sustained denial of a political voice and the continuous discounting of the value of their lives.