Vita Peacock: The slave trader, the artist, and an empty plinth

On 7th June 2020, the bronze statue of Edward Colston in the English city of Bristol was pulled down by Black Lives Matter protesters with a rope, rolled a short distance down the road, and dropped into the harbor with a gurgle. Colston was a merchant who became rich in the late seventeenth-century selling sugar, wine, oil, fruits, and most significantly, slaves from the West African coast (Morgan 1999). Although, rather dubiously, Colston left no written records, he became a member of the Royal African Company in 1680, rising to deputy governor in 1689, at a time when the chartered corporation held a monopoly over the West African slave trade, shipping captives to plantations in North America, the Caribbean, and Brazil (Pettigrew 2013). Colston’s memory has however endured in Bristol because of his local philanthropic works. Colston funded schools, hospitals, almshouses, workhouses, and other charitable causes, and even today his name is attached to a number of other toponyms across the city. The statue itself was erected in 1895 at the height of the British Empire as a tribute to these works—completely neglecting their own inhumane underpinnings.

Since the 1990s, Colston’s pivotal role in the slave trade has become more widely known, and calls had been growing to remove the statue, but without tangible effect. So when a wave of protests swept the world, in anger at the killing of African-American George Floyd by a white police officer, Black Lives Matter activists in the U.S. began upending confederate statues, and Colston fell as part of this iconoclastic surge, subsequently catalyzing it when the event was beamed across social media and made international headlines. At the time of writing, over 360 public objects across the world symbolizing racial hierarchies have now been removed, defaced, painted over, beheaded, and drowned.

Michael Taussig has reflected extensively on what happens when symbols are destroyed (1999). Public statues like the eighteen-foot figure of Colston contain a secret, a public secret—in his case the secret of African slavery that lay behind his reformist programme—that is revealed at the moment of their desecration. The power of this revelation is by its own nature temporary, but nevertheless extremely potent, releasing a ‘strange surplus of negative energy’ into the world (1999, 1), a magical shockwave whose strength is commensurate with the depth of the secret it exposes. When activist Jen Reid stood on top of the empty plinth later that day, spontaneously raising her arm in the Black Power salute, ‘It was like an electrical charge of power running through me’, she remembers. As news of the toppling continued to spread, the plinth stood there, pulsing, while a feverish debate developed over what should replace it.


The empty plinth where Colston stood is embroidered with Black Lives Matter placards (Caitlin Hobbs / 7th June 2020, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Colston_-_empty_pedestal.jpg)

I have been an admirer of the artist Marc Quinn since I was twelve years old. That year, 1997, I was tugged along to the epoch-defining Sensation exhibition at London’s Royal Academy. Quinn’s contribution was present alongside other so-called Young British Artists, or YBAs, a new generation of creators working under the influence of postmodernism who sought to redefine what we thought of as art. The sight of his head made entirely out of his own blood is still imprinted on my mind, an object which somehow managed to capture both the intense throb of life, at the same time as being a death-mask, a memento mori. Some years later, when I was twenty, I made sure to catch Alison Lapper Pregnant on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, the sumptuous marble form of a woman in the bloom of biological reproduction alongside a severe disability.

At 4.30am on the 15th July 2020, in the space of barely fifteen minutes, Quinn, together with Jen Reid, a Guardian journalist, and a team of crane operatives, again placed himself at the forefront of my consciousness when he installed a life-sized resin statue of Reid giving her salute on top of Colston’s empty plinth, alongside a statement on his website. But this artwork raised questions in a way that the others did not.

The statement announces that it was a ‘joint’ undertaking by Quinn and his model Reid, an act of co-creation. Their aims are stated using the collective ‘we’ and Quinn stresses that he and Reid wanted to do the installation ‘together’. In a fuller interview with the Guardian, Quinn even attempts to efface his own role entirely, when he claims that ‘Jen created the sculpture when she stood on the plinth and raised her arm in the air’. But this vision of equality is a smokescreen, and a dangerous one at that. Reid did not create the sculpture when she raised her arm on the plinth, she was experiencing life as a subject, not an object, sensing the energic power of defacement. Quinn created the sculpture with a team of craftsmen. He is a white, 56-year old man, educated at a private boarding school and later at Cambridge University, with a distinguished legacy as an artist behind him. This kind of positionality does not prevent him from being the effective ‘white ally’ that the statement claims to strive for, but true allyship cannot arise when vast differences of institutional privilege are altogether erased. He announces modestly that the sculpture is ‘an embodiment and amplification of Jen’s ideas and experiences’, and yet, after trawling newspaper articles about the installation, I remain unable to answer the most basic question of Reid’s daily occupation.

Still, the most egregious part of the statement comes when Quinn asserts that the motive for the sculpture was ‘keeping the issue of Black people’s lives and experiences in the public eye’. This is at best a delusion and at worst a deception. This issue was at the very center of the public’s dilated pupils as it watched the satisfying swivel of Colston’s tumble on repeat, something which had little to do with Quinn, and everything to do with the physical, social, and legal risks taken by activists on the ground. The terrible genius of Quinn’s move was that he won either way. Either Bristol City Council opted to retain the sculpture, in which case his work would be permanently occupying what is at present the most famous plinth in Britain, or they opted to remove it, by which point the exposure achieved through the guerilla act will have inflated its capital value beyond anything that could have been achieved through more conventional means.

Of course, this was what the YBAs were known for. Tracy Emin’s soiled bed at the same Sensation exhibition in 1997 was as much a confidence trick about whether such an object could command a re-sale value as anything else. And its apotheosis came when Damien Hirst attempted to vend a diamond-encrusted skull for £50 million, a brazen (and by some accounts unsuccessful) experiment in wealth creation. Even if, as Quinn says, the money made when A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) is eventually sold will be given directly to the causes of people in Britain of African descent, the value is not his to give. Just that philanthropic gesture echoes the uncomfortable paradoxes of Colston himself, who made his wealth in an economy of exploitation only to munificently re-gift it.

No formal consent has been sought for the installation’, the statement says calmly. Herein lies the most problematic aspect of the work. At the risk of simplifying a complex and multivalent phenomenon (cf. Patterson 1980), we might think of non-consent as the very epicenter of the slave relation. To be compelled into a condition when the only alternative is violence or death is the antithesis of consent as we would understand it. Enlightenment thinkers invented various moral contortions to get around this brute truth, John Locke famously arguing that as captives in a just war, the slave gave his or her consent in exchange for their life, but these can now be comprehensively dismissed. To engage in such an openly nonconsensual way with a value created by Black people, both now and historically, at a time when a genuine public discussion around slavery in Britain had just opened up, was deplorable. It need not be said that if a Black artist, or someone with less gilded credentials, had engaged in this kind of illegal action, they may not have received the same general fanfare, and may even have been criminally prosecuted.

Within just twenty-four hours the artwork was removed. Bristol has been governed, since 2016, by the first ever person of African descent to be elected to the mayoralty of a major European city, Marvin Rees, whose father is Afro-Jamaican and mother is white British. Rees set the tone within hours of the installation with a public statement, ‘There is an African proverb that says if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. Our challenge is to take this city far’. Quinn’s unsolicited gift, which may now be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, was quietly, but firmly, rejected by Bristol City Council. This was no minor financial decision for an entity working under the pressure of a decade of austerity and the devastations of Covid-19. The profound dignity of this gesture was what Audra Simpson might call a ‘refusal’ (2014), a negation of one world for the purpose of affirming another. It was a refusal in this case to play the game of appropriation, the seizure of value. It gave hope for the future.


Vita Peacock is an anthropologist and Humboldt Fellow affiliated with LMU Munich and the Humboldt University. She is currently finalizing a manuscript based on her ethnography of the Anonymous movement, Digital Initiation Rites: The Arc of Anonymous in Britain.


References

Morgan, Kenneth. 1999. Edward Colston and Bristol. Bristol: Bristol Branch of the Historical Association.

Patterson, Orlando. 1982. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, [Mass.] ; London: Harvard University Press.

Pettigrew, William. A. 2013. Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

Taussig, Michael T. 1999. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


Cite as: Peacock, Vita. “The slave trader, the artist, and an empty plinth.” Focaal Blog, 29 July 2020. www.focaalblog.com/2020/07/29/vita-peacock:-the-slave-trader,-the-artist,-and-an-empty-plinth/