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Toppled Colston statue
Toppled Colston statueBristol Museums

How to make a monument that stands the test of time

‘Not all statues are innocent,’ says fourth plinth artist Samson Kambalu – but a new wave of sculptors are crafting monuments that better reflect our changing world

When a monument makes the news in recent years, it’s more likely to have been torn down than erected in honour of a great person or event. Bronze statues of slave traders are pulled from their plinths and rolled into the sea. Others are daubed in red paint, beheaded, and set on fire. Supersized Soviet victory monuments are levelled by heavy machinery in protest against the war in Ukraine. Some claim that the iconoclasts are tearing up our history books with a blind disregard for the past; at the same time, these images are somehow familiar. Depicted in books, films, and archival documents, they are as much a part of history as statues themselves.

The controversy that surrounds today’s monuments echoes a tradition that goes as far back as the Middle Ages, when Christian zealots mutilated the faces, limbs, and genitals of ancient statues in Greece and Syria. Fast-forward through time to the foundation of the United States, and you’ll find citizens tearing down a statue of the British king George III to turn it into musket balls, so that, as the New York postmaster poetically put it, “his troops [would] have melted Majesty fired at them”. More than 200 years later, in March 2001, the Taliban blew up the 1,400-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas with dynamite in the turmoil that followed a brutal civil war (apparently they regret it now though). In 2003, US troops toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein by tying it to an armoured vehicle, in what became an abiding (if ill-fitting) symbol of the war in Iraq.

More often than not, pulling down monuments signifies a regime change – religious or political, immediate or painstakingly slow. Is that also what we were witnessing in 2020, as a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was tossed into Bristol harbour? Is that what we continue to witness, as campaigners call for the removal of a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford’s Oriel College, and countries of the former Eastern Bloc chip away at their past – a cultural revolution, if not a political one? It’s hard to say, and even more difficult to envision what’s supposed to come next if that is the case. However, amid the wave of vocal opposition toward the statues that stand in our streets and public squares – some bearing up better than others against the tide of public opinion – a new generation of artists are erecting new public monuments that might offer us some answers.

On September 14, 2022, Samson Kambalu, a Malawi-born multimedia artist and Oxford professor, was due to unveil Antelope, the latest sculpture to grace Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, before the launch was delayed in recognition of the mourning period that followed the Queen’s death. (A campaign to replace the Fourth Plinth Commission with a permanent statue of the late Elizabeth II has since gained “widespread support” in the House of Commons.) Set against the backdrop of Nelson’s Column – a 169-foot monument that has largely stayed above the debate about Britain’s colonial history, despite allegations of white supremacy – Antelope recreates a photograph of the Malawian preacher and pan-Africanist John Chilembwe, and the European missionary John Chorley. In the photo, Chilembwe wears a wide-brimmed hat in open defiance of colonial rule, which forbade Africans from wearing hats in front of white people. In Kambalu’s sculptural reimagining, Chorley is life-sized while Chilembwe is enlarged, elevating his place in history and casting light on a narrative that has historically gone unrecognised.

For Kambalu, it’s an artist’s responsibility to unearth such stories and rebalance the way we talk about our nation’s past and present. “I'm not interested in art that just complements power or status quo,” he tells Dazed. “I think art has to do something more… to speak truth to power.” This is key, Kambalu suggests, to creating a monument that stands the test of time, instead of falling “by the will of the people”, years or decades or even centuries after it was erected. “A lot of these monuments will not survive because they were not made with art in mind, just to impose the sentiments of the powerful on the people,” he adds. “But every now and then an artist turns up and proposes something more than that, more than just what they have been commissioned for, and art happens.” It’s in this sense of truth – “timeless, or universal” – that he locates the enduring appeal of masterpieces such as Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, or the Pietà. “You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate Michelangelo,” he says. “I don’t think people are calling for the Sistine Chapel to be painted over.”

Of course, it’s near impossible to pin down what gives a statue a “timeless or universal” quality, exactly. Is it about who it represents, or how it represents them? (Mary Wollstonecraft is undeniably a figure worth celebrating, and yet Maggi Hambling’s monument to the founder of modern feminism, a “silver Barbie glued to a melted popsicle”, instantly became a figure of nationwide ridicule.) Do we hate so many statues in the UK and the US because they’re simply not as beautiful as those on display in Athens or Rome? Maybe, if the UK government actually had any respect for the arts, instead of slashing funding and urging young creatives to retrain, they wouldn’t be so plagued by calls to remove the nation’s monuments. Or, has enough time passed that we can simply forget the crimes and character flaws of the people that ancient monuments were built to commemorate?

After all, no one’s talking about the aesthetic merit of artworks depicting the likes of Colston or Rhodes when they call for their removal. They’re protesting the fact that a monument – by definition “a lasting evidence, reminder, or example of someone great” – has been built to commemorate white supremacists complicit in their nation’s racist past. Carved in stone or cast in bronze, these monuments have outlived generations of real human beings and cultural revolutions. Needless to say, few people still consider slave traders “great” people, leaving us with a country full of outdated idols, disconnected from their original meaning.

Is the removal of every problematic statue the right way forward, though? This has been a contentious issue since the Colston Four took matters into their own hands during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests – while many applauded their actions, others claimed that they were erasing the nation’s history, and that even statues of slave traders should be left standing as a reminder of its chequered past. “We do understand that many artworks are divisive or represent unpleasant parts of our history,” says Art UK, a cultural education charity that has spent the last nine years cataloguing every public sculpture in the country. “People can be offended by the presence of particular artworks, so we understand why feelings run high.” Nevertheless, the charity opposes unlawful damage or removal, suggesting that there are alternatives to better address historic injustice and racial bias: “One option is to move sculptures into a museum where there can be more context and explanation.”

It’s worth noting that defacement isn’t only an issue on the more conservative end of the political spectrum, either. Earlier this year, the multimedia artist Puppies Puppies  (AKA Jade Guanaro Kuriki-Olivo) installed a nude bronze sculpture at a busy intersection in Basel, as part of the city’s annual art fair. Depicting the artist at the time of creation – a trans woman on hormone replacement therapy, with a penis – the statue was inscribed with the word “Woman”. “I wanted to create a self-portrait that depicted me living in my truth as a trans woman, but also that addressed the erasure of trans people from the history of art,” she tells Dazed. The ancient medium of bronze sculpture was a conscious choice, signifying the metaphorical armour that a trans woman of colour has to wear for daily survival, as well as the timeless existence of trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people. Generally, Puppies Puppies is more accustomed to more ephemeral work, like performances. “But conceptually,” she adds, “this work needed to be able to withstand the test of time.”

Over the course of Art Basel, however, the public statue proved controversial; some viewers spat on it, and a guard was required to keep it from being vandalised further. Puppies Puppies also found hateful and transphobic comments under her Instagram posts, then began to receive slurs and death threats via DMs, as well as messages to her personal phone number, which was somehow released to the public. “I knew it would be controversial to show myself, a trans woman on hormone replacement therapy with a penis, standing on a small plinth that says ‘WOMAN’ in the public sphere (even though nude sculptures of people, gods and goddesses exist all over Europe),” she says. “I just didn’t realise the lengths people would go. It hurt me more than I realised it would.”

Obviously, this transphobic backlash is very different to the retaliation against racist monuments – for one thing, protesters calling for the removal of historic statues aren’t making credible threats of violence against their long-dead creators. In their opposition to white imperialism, they’re also seen as “punching up”, rather than “punching down” at people whose rights and representation are still sorely lacking in public spaces. Art UK’s research uncovered that a mere two per cent of named public statues commemorate people of colour, though this is improving thanks to new initiatives such as London’s £1 million Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm. “This visibility is important,” Puppies Puppies notes. “But it doesn’t stop us from not being allowed to be ourselves, harassed, violated, harmed, alienated, excommunicated and/or murdered.”

The reaction to her public installation in Basel shone a spotlight on this hostility, and this is part of its power. Should it have been removed at the first sign of offence? Of course not. However, this distinction between which statues should stay and which should go raises questions of its own. Should public art cater to anyone’s political beliefs? Who gets to decide? Can artists safeguard against shifting political norms, which could change the meaning of their art years after their death? (As Art UK notes: “It’s very difficult to know how future generations will feel about our monuments.”) Perhaps everyone is destined to fall out of favour at some point in history, for one reason or another – a statue either topples a hero or stands long enough to see itself become the villain. But is everyone destined to fall back in again, so long as enough time is allowed to pass?

“A monument can only stand by the will of the people” – Samson Kambalu

For Kambalu, it’s a question of intent. “The Rhodes sculpture wasn’t exactly put up there by the will of the people,” he says. “It’s more, ‘Oh I’ve got money, put me there.’ Rhodes stands above God, Jesus and Mary, kings and queens, and he fancied himself up there because he made some money in southern Africa, and decided to impose himself. I don’t know whether he can last like that… A monument can only stand by the will of the people.”

The intentions of Kambalu and Puppies Puppies clearly move beyond the self-congratulation of rich politicians, businessmen, and monarchs. With his statue of Chilembwe, Kambalu looks back into the past to unearth narratives that are vital to our understanding of the nation’s true history. Alternately, Puppies Puppies’ politicised self-portrait exposes the prejudice of the present, and proposes a future that is more tolerant and free. However, there’s also a third way forward for contemporary monuments, pioneered by the British sculptor Thomas J Price, which circumvents the problem of idolising individuals entirely.

“For the past two decades, my work has challenged the way in which monuments permeate our society, who is honoured in this way, and how power is conveyed through public sculpture,” Price tells Dazed. Earlier this year, this work took the form of two statues outside Hackney Town Hall. Titled Warm Shores, the civic art project depicts a young man and an older woman, cast in larger-than-life bronze. These aren’t famous or historic individuals. Instead, they are drawn directly from the local community, based on 3D scans of 30 Hackney residents, in a broader nod to the legacy of the Windrush Generation. “[The statues] represent multiple generations and celebrate an entire community’s vital contribution to our country,” Price adds. “It is their legacy that my work serves above all else.”

This democratic outlook is also felt in the artist’s Moments Contained, a sculpture that was appropriately placed across the exhibition hall from a monument-themed woven frieze by Diedrick Brackens at this year’s Art Basel. (Are Brackens’ figures raising a pedestal with their ropes, or pulling it down? It’s not entirely clear. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.) Like the figures in Warm Shores, the fictional woman depicted in Moments Contained wears casual clothing, rather than a “costume of power”, and her feet are planted directly into the ground, pushing back against the hierarchy implicit in placing people on plinths.

Of course, crowdsourcing the identity of a statue and dressing it in a tracksuit doesn’t necessarily make it invincible. Neither does resurrecting underrepresented figures from our past, or basing statues on super-contemporary conceptions of selfhood. Who’s to say how public opinion will have changed when we’re all dead and buried, and our statues are left to speak for themselves? In the immediate present, however, it’s undeniable that each of these contemporary approaches to monument-making represents a shift away from our traditional view of the art form: untouchable tributes to “great” people who deserve to be uplifted for their wealth, industry, or lineage. Depicting the same people that see them on a daily basis, these statues offer a more realistic and accessible interpretation of our past and present. Placing them among these communities – instead of raised on plinths or a 150-foot column – offers a kind of invitation: if people wish to pull them down, then so be it.

To some extent, these acts of creation and destruction go hand in hand. “I think art is a better form of protest and detournement,” Kambalu says. “Although every now and then one has to create a situation where art can happen.” This situation is becoming increasingly precarious however. As outlined in the UK government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Act 2022, vandals who target public monuments can now face up to 10 years in prison. In 2020, the US reinforced similarly draconian legislation to deter BLM protesters. Though the Colston Four were eventually cleared of criminal charges, not everyone will be so lucky. 

If plans go ahead to replace the Fourth Plinth Commission – a groundbreaking project for public, accessible art – with a statue of Elizabeth II that could go literally anywhere else, then it would similarly represent a shift away from democratic public art, back toward monuments that “merely complement power or the status quo”. But maybe that’s not as bad as it seems, in the long run. After all, today’s political structures and modes of power aren’t going to last forever, and what could be a better symbol of their demise than pulling down a statue of our longest-reigning monarch in Trafalgar Square? Monuments are an important and powerful part of our cultural fabric – if not as symbols of our “great” people and cultural victories, then for what they symbolise when we rip them off their plinths and toss them into the sea.