Now you see her, now you don’t: will the Surge of Power just be temporary?

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Photo credit: Edward Howell

For 24 hours last week, an ordinary black woman took centre stage following a moment of spontaneity after the Black Lives Matter protest.  Marc Quinn’s statue ‘A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020’ was never meant to be permanent, yet it had meaning and was erected to elicit debate about the future of the plinth after years of deadlock in Bristol over Edward Colston’s statue. Installed at dawn one day, dismantled at dawn the next.

‘My wife. My life. She matters’: the few words written in tribute by Jen’s husband on his Instagram photo of her that sparked Marc Quinn’s idea for a statue seem rather hollow now. Where is Jen Reid? Is she gathering dust alongside Colston somewhere in the gloom, her power gone, her voice muted?

Quinn has been slated for being a white male artist of privilege – and from London to boot ­– but surely we should celebrate the renaissance of protest art at a time of national slumber with a right-wing government which appears to be more than up for seeing art and culture disappear?  And black lives are more likely to matter with the support of white lives like Quinn’s, just as women’s lives will flourish when men of quality turn out for them. In ‘A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020’, both did.

Quinn’s ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’, erected on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, was a welcome antidote to the warmongering admirals and generals who have inhabited the space throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. And Quinn’s work builds on a proud tradition: from the early 70s feminist artists understood their task to be decolonising the female body, reclaiming it from masculine objectification and the male gaze.

They engendered a dialogue between art and society, artist and audience; art transcended the individual, often through social protest and performance and other mixed media.  Meaning was prioritised over form. As Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrad outline in their book, The Power of Feminist Art, a new aesthetic category opened up new avenues of expression to male as well as female artists. Within the feminist movement, women of colour led the way. In creating effective forms of social protest art, they realised that racism and sexism were intertwined. As we have written elsewhere in this issue of Sussex Bylines, the Black Lives Matter movement is collaborative and female.

When Jen Reid stood on that plinth and felt that surge of power, she was channelling the strength of previous generations of black women who had come before her, many of whom had been forgotten.  As she said herself, collaborating with Quinn on the statue was important because ‘it is about making a stand for my mother, my daughter, for black people like me. It’s about black children seeing it up there.

That is surely the point isn’t it? It is about representation. We need to see people who look like us on pedestals. Normal people and extraordinary people. The power of the statue is currently heavily biased towards white men. As Invisible Women point out in their campaigning material: ‘Who are you looking up to? 85% are men.’

They have had some successes. A statue is due to be erected of Betty Campbell, a working-class black girl who succeeded beyond all expectation to become Wales’ first headteacher of colour. Helen Molyneux, Chair of the Institute of Welsh Affairs commented that ‘the statue project is an extraordinary way of making female success ordinary, something not to be commented on as a rare thing. To give our girls and boys images of successful inspiring women that they see as part of the fabric of where they live.’

In Brighton a campaign has been ongoing to fund a statue of Mary Clarke, the famous Suffragette who lived and worked here, but it all takes time, and money. Fundraising is long and arduous.  

In this context, Quinn’s gift was to be welcomed. It was not illegal, just didn’t go through ‘due process’. How long is due process? How long did Bristolians have to wait before they lost patience? There are no easy answers to the complex history of Bristol’s connection to the slave trade and the future of the plinth vacated by slave owner Edward Colston.  Perhaps a citizen’s assembly could be organised to elicit the views of the locals, given that lobbying and arguments have prevented the council making any decision on behalf of its people.

As Adrian Vinken, the CEO of Theatre Royal Plymouth, has said, ‘A major piece of public art can transform the world’s perception of what a place is like. It makes a statement about a city.’ Bristol will need to focus on how they best want to represent their city, but in the meantime we could all have benefited from the beautiful gift that Quinn bequeathed it  – a visual representation of a strong black woman.

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