A report and interview by Jonathan Heaf for GQ.
When the toppling of slaver Edward Colston left an empty plinth in Bristol’s city centre, artist Marc Quinn unilaterally erected a statue of Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid in its place. But black British sculptor Thomas J Price has deep qualms about Quinn’s move
When artist Marc Quinn hastily erected his sculpture of Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid, “A Surge Of Power”, last Wednesday morning at 5am, her balled fist punching a hole in the July sky, many saw the artwork as something of a triumph, a piece of art that encapsulated the raw power and revolutionary purpose of the tide-shifting, culture-quaking BLM movement itself. A symbol of hope, even. Booker prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo went so far to say it showed “initiative” and “active allyship”.
Yet did those same people reposting the image on social media, “liking” Quinn’s interpretation of Reid’s powerful stand, get it wrong? Did I get it wrong? Did you? With so much talk about creating engaging spaces for new black artists, of lifting up a greater diversity of voices and the importance of anti-racist allyship, was it right – no matter how effective you thought the artwork – that a privileged, well-established white artist claimed that powerful empty space on Edward Colston’s graffitied plinth for himself?
History is, indeed, in the making (and remaking) here and therefore it is even more crucial to look closely at the background of an artist such as Quinn in regards to such a headline-making public, artistic statement. How significant is it, for example, that Quinn was married until 2014 to children’s author Lady Georgia Byng, a descendent of the first Earl Of Strafford (second creation, 1672-1739), Thomas Wentworth, who played a key diplomatic role in negotiating the Peace Of Utrecht (1713), an agreement that gave British slave traders the contract, known as the “asiento”, to trade 144,000 slaves a year to Spanish South America. One wonders how much Quinn considered (or was open with his collaborators about) this family history prior to his “secret mission” to take over the vacant Colston plinth? Does it matter even? If so, how does historical context impact his art?
Black British sculptor Thomas J Price, a man I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to previously about art, work and everything in between, thinks what Quinn did last week was wrong – a “stunt” – even going so far as to say that the artist’s actions, however intended, have dangerous parallels to the very slaver, Edward Colston, who stood for years on that spot in Bristol previously. Price calls out what Quinn did as a form of artistic “colonialism”.
As a successful artist himself, well on a trajectory to becoming one of the leading sculptors this country has produced in recent years, Price is a man who knows this medium, its power and nuances only too well. Just this year, on Windrush Day, in fact, Price was chosen to create the first public sculpture that will be erected in London to honour the contributions of the Windrush generation, those who arrived from Caribbean countries to help rebuild post-War Britain.
I caught up with him last week, hours after Quinn’s sculpture had just come down.
Thomas, many people woke up on Wednesday morning feeling optimistic about seeing Marc Quinn’s sculpture of BLM protestor Jen Reid being placed on the Edward Colston plinth in Bristol. Why do you argue that this initial, positive reaction is wrong?
I think it really shows us what happens when there is an absolute lack of true representation of diverse images, in this case of black people and a black woman. When this happens, like on Wednesday, as soon as one is seen, suddenly, it’s amazing. As a lot of people saw this image via something like Instagram, via the media, we don’t scratch the surface of that object or that sculpture and look at what’s residing within: on the outside, on the surface of the Marc Quinn sculpture, there’s this powerful image of a black woman on top of the plinth. Underneath this, however, you have the ambition and entitlement of this very privileged white guy, this white artist, Marc Quinn.
‘Within The Folds (Dialogue 1)’ by Thomas J Price
So you don’t feel Quinn’s sculpture celebrated the protestor’s moment, nor supported the Black Lives Matter movement?
Marc Quinn saw Jen Reid, actually a photograph of Jen [Reid] standing on Colston’s plinth, on social media, I believe. And that’s when he thought that it would make a great sculpture. He told the Guardian, “When I saw the picture of Jen on Instagram, I immediately thought it would be great to immortalise that moment. The image is a silhouette: she looked like a sculpture already.” It was the thinking and actions of some old-school documentary maker, or a trophy hunter. Quinn decided that he could control that image of Jen Reid. For her, that moment was one that felt right, that felt powerful, but it’s as if Quinn, by casting her in resin, and controlling her, is stealing that genuine moment away, claiming it as his own. It’s very interesting that he uses “power” in the title; it is called “A Surge Of Power”. Yet whose power? Where is the power flowing to or from? To Jen? To the artwork? Or to Marc Quinn? He talks about this as an opportunity. An opportunity for this black woman, for the Black Lives Matter movement and an opportunity for racial equality. The hubris of this man is incredible. He hasn’t given anything, he’s only taken. He’s exploited an opportunity.
Lots of people, black as well as white, have applauded Marc Quinn’s sculpture…
We have to sit with it for a moment. We are too quick to see something, post it, like it, applaud it… Yes, there are lots of black people saying positive things about this, but some of them aren’t looking. So I have had a lot of reactions from people in North America – it’s really a very Americanised image. People have been saying it looks like a scene from a movie, and, you know, of course it does, as that chimes with this artist’s understanding of what it should look like. So the scene from the movie plays out on Instagram and the media, getting a very positive write-up in things like the Guardian. People see this image and they think, “Yes, that is black power. That is a powerful woman.” And I thought so initially also. A bit cheesy, but that’s just my artistic taste. So people start messaging me. And then I show them a picture of Marc Quinn and they say, “Are you taking the piss? Wait, he’s a white guy?” And they are mad because they have been taken for a ride. In that instance, everything changes. It happened to me, as I say, maybe a little quicker, as I know who Quinn is, I know of his previous work, so I know his track record of dipping in and out of issues. His fetishisation tactics that could be argued is a feature of his work throughout.
‘Lay it Down (On The Edge Of Beauty)’ by Thomas J Price
As a contemporary black British artist, when you realised who had made the sculpture of Jen Reid, how did it make you feel?
Look, the reason it made me angry and really frustrates me or upsets me is that it’s like he’s muddied the water – this thing that was beginning to be this clear pool of vision of where we should be going. And he’s gone and dive-bombed in and just gone, “Me!” You know? He said, “I am the one to control this conversation. I am the one to own this moment. Me.” Of course, people have said to me, “Well, this is just sour grapes, Thomas. Marc Quinn showed initiative. You should find some.” Or “I look forward to seeing your public sculpture that is donated.” Right? And messages came from someone who is a friend…
Wow. Tough to hear?
Well, let’s look at the situation. Let’s unpack it. Marc Quinn is an incredibly wealthy artist, a very wealthy family, and has benefited from a system that gives him privilege and access to things that, quite frankly, black artists have to fight for, to get even in small quantities. Quinn is sitting on the resources and the facilities to do a piece like this as soon as the opportunity arises. Someone like myself, and my art, I’ve had to battle even to have the imagery of a black person accepted in a public space. That’s my experience. The first piece of sculpture I did wasn’t going to be allowed to go into a public space, because the media might say it looks like a rioter, and I was going cause controversy. So that’s my experience as a black artist in this country.
Much of your work deals directly with the topic of public sculpture and the representations of black men and women in sculptural art. It must have made seeing this even harder?
My work critiques body mentality, plus the whole ethos attached to what monumentalism is, what functions it performs within societies and how it creates and reinforces structures of power. Mark Quinn is well and truly already part of that structure of power and he used that structure to profit himself and surrounded himself with people he could say had collaborated with him. But of course black people want allyship, that goes without saying. We also need people like Quinn, however, to step back sometimes and realise that they have dominated this space for so long and not listened for so long, that now is the time to listen. What he’s done is he’s colonised that plinth. He has used his vast resources, in comparison to the other people who have authentic lived experiences, the nuanced voices that could easily describe what it means to be a black person on that plinth.
‘Reaching Out’ by Thomas J Price
What about the argument some have, that the subject, Jen Reid, did fully collaborate with Quinn, that she seems very proud and pleased with the process and the results?
I think that’s a very weak argument. And I think it’s quite clearly an exploitative argument. [It’s] a bit like [Quinn] going on a safari, picking people off in positions he is curious about. Whatever happens to the sculpture, whether or not it is sold and the benefits go towards a particular charity, Quinn ‘the artist’ will certainly benefit from from the media maelstrom it has created; he is now relevant again. In the art word, this sort of pr drives up prices. Yet he isn’t left with the results of what his sculptures create in terms of the understanding of what those images are. So he can make a sculpture of a black woman and he can talk about that, and then he can then move away from it and never have to deal with that again. It’s so unfortunate. And just unbelievably insensitive. I don’t think it’s malice. I think it’s just total entitled insensitivity.
What should be done with Quinn’s work? You were aware it was taken down by the council on Thursday, then?
We need to find a way forward. What Marc Quinn did was not allyship. If he wanted allyship he should have done it totally anonymously. Now he has created a scenario where every piece of art that tries to take that space on the Colston plinth will be compared to Quinn’s work. The image of his work will live on, and wrongly so. It will haunt that space. Quinn could have given the opportunity to a young black artist from the area and given them that platform. Black people couldn’t get close to that space, yet for him as a white man it was easy. He even took the language of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling his placement of the Jen Reid statue “guerilla”, mirroring the fight during the protests. So, yes, I am happy as now we can take our time, talk to the community, listen to people and try to rid ourselves of a very horrible aftereffect from this.
As a black artist, how challenging has your own career progression been in the structure of the British art world?
Marc Quinn’s sculpture was a con. A PR stunt and a con. This game, the art world, is rigged. It’s incredibly elitist and to find awareness of one’s own work you have to be incredibly careful navigating it. In order for me to get into a position as someone who has more money, or who is white, I have to do so much more work just to get on a level playing field. And it’s exhausting. And what Quinn has done here, he argues, is create debate – to set people’s opinions against one another. But that’s not, to me, debate. That’s sabotage. He’s hijacked a cause that was slowly building momentum. He arrogantly seems to think that this debate wasn’t already going on without him, but it was. I’ll leave this question open: after Quinn’s stunt are there more or are there less opportunities for black artists? Yes, I believe many of those statues depicting slave owners should come down, I have said this many times before, but what replaces them needs to be considered carefully.
What should happen to Quinn’s statue now?
I don’t believe in erasing history, just building a better future, one without oppressive harm in our public monuments. Perhaps the statue of Jen Reid, along with the Colston statue, covered in graffiti and pulled out of the river, should go in a museum. A museum to ensure we remember and hold it up for the horrendous hijacking it signifies. So, well done, Marc Quinn, you got what you wanted. You wanted to be part of history… well, now you are. Your “moment” has been caught forever.