The statue of slave trader Edward Colston was replaced in Bristol on Wednesday morning – with a sculpture of one of the protesters whose anger brought him down.
The figure of Jen Reid, who was photographed standing on the plinth with her fist raised after the 17th century merchant was toppled by Black Lives Matter demonstrators last month, was erected at dawn by a team directed by the artist Marc Quinn.
Arriving in two lorries before 5am, a team of 10 people worked quickly to install the figure of Reid, who said she had been secretly working with Quinn on the idea for weeks. It came as a complete surprise to the authorities, who are yet to announce their plans for the location.
A cardboard placard reading “black lives still matter” was placed at the bottom of the plinth.
Shortly after the vehicles drove away, Reid stood in front of the statue with her fist in the air. “It’s just incredible,” she said. “That’s pretty f**king ballsy, that it is.”
After meticulous planning to ensure the statue could be erected quickly enough to have it in place before officials arrived, the vehicles left the scene about 15 minutes after they got there. “I just knew it was going to happen,” said Reid. “They were so efficient.”
Sanna Bertilsson, who was cycling past, did a double take as she saw the figure and stopped to look. “I didn’t know they were replacing it,” she said. “It’s absolutely beautiful.” Told that it had been put up without permission, she said: “I’d better get a picture before they take it down.”
By 8am a crowd of commuters and passersby was gathered to take pictures and discuss the statue, but there was still no sign of the council or police. The only council presence had been a roadsweeper, whose driver stopped to take a picture before continuing on his shift.
“It is incredible seeing it,” said Jen Reid’s daughter, Leila Reid, arriving and gazing up at the statue a little later. “It’s surreal. From the kneecap to the shape of her hands – it’s just her.” She said she had struggled to keep the secret since her mother told her. “She’s proud to represent a movement, and if there’s a better way to do that I can’t think of it.”
Earlier, Reid said her “stomach has been flipping upside down”. “Being up there, with my fist raised – it was an amazing moment, and this captures it. It gives me goose pimples.”
Reid, a stylist, attended the march with her husband, who one of the group that rolled the statue of Colston to the river after it was pulled down. She said that to stand for the BLM movement was “massive”, but “it would be just as big if it was someone else representing the same thing. This is going to continue the conversation. I can’t see it coming down in a hurry.”
Quinn – whose best known works include his “blood head” self-portrait Self and a sculpture of an artist that temporarily occupied the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, Alison Lapper Pregnant – said he viewed it as a duty for prominent white artists to amplify other voices.
“I’ve always felt it’s part of my job to bring the world into art and art into the world,” said Quinn, who previously made a series of works inspired by the riots that followed the police killing of Mark Duggan in 2011. “Jen created the sculpture when she stood on the plinth and raised her arm in the air. Now we’re crystallising it.”
“The only thing that could have stopped it would have been some kind of official intervention, but it didn’t happen,” he added. “It looks like it’s always been here.”
The ambush sculpture is likely to reignite the debate over public statuary in the UK that began with the toppling of the Colston figure five weeks ago. In the weeks that followed, and amid growing pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement, Oriel College bowed to a longstanding campaign and backed calls to remove a figure of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes, though it is still in place for now.
After British prime minister Boris Johnson responded by saying that to remove statues was “to lie about our history”, counter-protesters – including some far-right groups – assembled in London to combat a supposed threat to a statue of Winston Churchill.
In the weeks since, although ideas including a Banksy proposal and calls for a statue of civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson have been floated, and a mannequin of the notorious paedophile Jimmy Savile was briefly installed before falling off, no permanent decision on the future of the Colston site has been reached.
The figure of Colston has been retrieved from the bottom of Bristol Harbour, where it was thrown by protesters, and is being restored – with graffiti and an old bike tyre it collected in the water preserved – ahead of a proposed new home in Bristol Museum.
The new black resin and steel figure – entitled A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020 – was transported from Quinn’s studio on Tuesday and stored overnight outside the city. It was put in place by a group Quinn described as “a professional outfit I’ve known a long time” using a hydraulic crane truck parked next to the plinth.
The team carried out the same surveys and health and safety checks it would have gone through on a more conventional work, Quinn said, adding that it had been installed in such a way that it would be “extremely difficult to move”.
“But it is ultimately moveable,” he added. “This is not a permanent artwork.”
Reid said it had been difficult to keep the secret from friends and family. “When friends say ‘I’ll see you later,’ I think … yeah, you will!”
On whether there was an issue with a white artist being behind the work, Reid said: “It’s not even a question. If we have allies, it doesn’t matter what colour they are. He has done something to represent BLM, and to keep the conversation going.”
While the team behind the sculpture of Reid is confident it has broken no laws, Bristol police and council will now face questions about how to respond.
“It’s a really great addition to the centre of Bristol,” said Bobby Loyal, an engineer who stopped on his bike. “It’s a really nice move. I just hope no one is angry about it and tries to rip this down. The statue before was offensive to a lot of people, I don’t think this is. I think the council should leave it in place.”
After the Colston statue came down, Bristol mayor Marvin Rees said he could not condone criminal damage but regarded the action as a “piece of historical poetry”. In June said he wanted a “citywide conversation” on the subject.
Quinn echoed Rees’s view, calling the removal of the Colston statue “an amazing act of poetic justice”. He added: “Bristol will eventually work out something to put on, or to do with, the plinth.
“But in the meantime it is this charged space. It can take decades for things to come into and out of the public sphere, as we’ve seen, even though that’s where the most important issues of the day are being discussed. So it seemed to us it was time for direct action.” – Guardian