Our next statues and monuments should tell untold stories, and have a profound effect on the public
“What do we do with the spaces left by toppled ideologies?” Cedar Lewisohn, curator at London’s Southbank Centre, imagines the artistic future of the public plinth.
- Cedar Lewisohn
- 18 August 2021
Of all the statues that have been torn down around the world in recent months, I don’t think anyone would argue that any of them had any intrinsic artistic value. But because of the emotional nature of the subjects, people on both sides are extremely passionate about these sculptures. It does appear, however, that no one in this fierce debate is actually concerned with what the sculptures look like. The argument is about what those physical objects, those lumps of metal, represent, and where, geographically, that representation should take place. This is clearly ideology over aesthetics. That in itself maybe deserves some thought. So here is a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment if the people around the world tearing down these public statues were not doing it because they have moral and ethical objections to who is being depicted; imagine if they were tearing down the sculptures because they did not like the way they look. Imagine if they were tearing down the sculptures because they thought the sculptures were bad art. And just to add to this fantasy further, imagine if there were media commentators, newspaper articles, and radio show call-ins, with people angrily arguing the case that a sculpture should stay up. Again, not for who is depicted, but because people actually loved the sculptures. That parallel universe does not exist, so far as I know. The reality is, there is a lot of bad art in public space. The public should be angry about this, purely on the grounds that it’s bad art. Bad art, bad design, poor city planning, these are subjects that need wider debate. The public deserves better. Better art in public space. Experimental, thought-provoking art for the 21st Century. Not some realist portrait of a rich person from 150 years ago who made their money or notoriety through dubious means. I don’t want to trivialise debates around the content of these sculptures that have been torn down. I do, however, want to look at the subject from a different perspective.
2021 is the 40th anniversary of the New Cross fire, an event that led to the deaths of 14 young people in Lewisham, southeast London. The artist and director Steve McQueen has made an excellent documentary (Uprising), explaining the historic context around this event. At The Southbank Centre, we have installed the audio of Linton Kwesi Johnson reading his poem New Crass Massahkah (1981). The poem plays on the hour for about five minutes, on Queens Walk by the river Thames. Hearing LKJ’s voice speak such moving words in a public space in central London feels like a powerful and fitting statement, in relation to the tragic event of the New Cross Fire. Displaying the audio of this poem also feels like a fitting artistic monument for that tragic event. When people think of monuments, they too often think of the monumental. Large-scale traditional figurative sculptures made of bronze. But there are other, more subtle ways to create monuments in public space. A monument should be something that has a profound effect on you.
When it comes to historic statues that have contested histories, the idea of subverting the genre and finding new ways to think about these subjects seems like a good way forward. This is why I was very happy to see Samson Kambalu awarded the next Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth commission. Samson’s proposal for the Fourth Plinth plays with the form of traditional conservative public sculpture while at the same time presenting histories and iconographies that few in the UK are familiar with. You might think you are looking at another nondescript portrait of some boring historic figures. Then you find out that the portraits are of radical anti-colonialist African Baptist preacher John Chilembwe and European missionary John Chorley. An innocuous detail in the work, that the two figures are wearing hats, actually highlights the brutal colonial rule that in Malawi, where the depicted scene is set, Africans were forbidden from wearing hats in front of white Europeans. Africans failing to do this could be “physically or verbally abused”. It is hard to believe that the instruction “chosta chipewa” (remove the hat), was still in use up to the 1950s. Despite these grim aspects of Kambalu’s work, the project does give us hope. Hope that high profile public art projects can be provocative, intelligent and even darkly humorous. Covid-19 has led to a reassessment of how we use public spaces, as well as a rush to place more art projects outside. In a sense, the torn down statues are symbolic of wider philosophical questions: What do we do with the spaces left by toppled ideologies? And will the replacements be an improvement?
Samson Kambalu: Antelope (Photograph by James O Jenkins. Copyright © Samson Kambalu, 2021)