What do today’s sculptors think about calls to topple racist statues?

After Edward Colston’s statue toppled from its plinth on Sunday 7 June, a debate ensued across the globe: Should we tear down reminders of oppression on our streets or should they be used in another setting to educate future generations?

Statues are a prominent part of our landscape that until now have largely stood unnoticed. For most of us, they are the backdrop to our daily lives that we rarely give a second thought to.

As protests for Black Lives Matter continue, the statues on our streets are under scrutiny. The sculptors who made the statues depicting the likes of Edward Colston, Robert Milligan and Cecil Rhodes are all dead, so we cannot ask them whether they knew about or understood the atrocities committed by the men they portrayed.

But what do the sculptors of today think about sculpting real figures and the responsibility they hold as artists?

Hazel Reeves, a sculptor from Brighton, has been commissioned for public statues across several cities.

Talking about the kind of responsibility sculptors hold, she tells us: ‘It is all about choreographing stories. As a figurative sculptor, my aim is to get a likeness, but also go beyond this to capture their essence, their ideas, and their drive.

‘Everyone is complex, their legacy is complex, so it would be unlikely I would endorse all the views of a subject. For me, I have to be sufficiently comfortable with the legacy of a historical figure I will represent.’

When figures with dubious histories are towering over us there’s an innate feeling among many that they’re simply wrong. But this debate is far from simple.

Reeves acknowledges this, saying: ‘If consultations and debates are used as a way of delaying decisions or maintaining the status quo, more direct action is inevitable.

‘While not condoning the destruction of a sculpture, I must say that I viscerally felt the symbolic power of the Colston statue being tossed into the docks as part of the Black Lives Matter protest.’

It’s important to remember that statues are asked for, commissioned and paid for. There are several governing bodies and organisations who hold the purse strings that control who is immortalised in bronze.

Taslim Martin is a sculptor from London who has been a professional artist for more than 20 years. He explains how sculptors are just a piece of a large puzzle: ‘The sculptor doesn’t have the sole responsibility when it comes to sculpting a real person for a public setting, often there is a steering group with a whole range of different criteria that has to be satisfied.

‘In short, “he who pays the piper calls the tune” – the final result is a negotiation between the artistic vision of the sculptor and the many, varied views and desires of the commissioning body.’

On Tuesday 9 June, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced a commission to review statues, plaques, and street names in the capital. The commission has said they will ‘consider the representation of BAME communities, women, the LGBTQ+ community and disability groups as part of its mission’.

The simple fact is that current statues in public spaces do not celebrate diverse figures. It’s mostly white men put on the pedestal, ignoring the rich hues of melanin in today’s Britain.

Many people have used the phrase being of ‘their time’ as a rebuttal to allegations that the likes of Winston Churchill were racist.

Valda Jackson came to this country at the age of five from Jamaica and her career spans over 30 years.

She says: ‘Yes, these people are “of their time”. We are of our time and we know right from wrong.

‘As an artist and an individual I will at times be transported by a particular work of art revealed by sun moon or street light – these works can be figurative or abstract and I will feel fortunate to be able to see it.

‘And then just around the corner perhaps, I might see a statue and although I understand why it had been commissioned and then erected, I am just amazed that the thing is still here with us, now.

‘Generally, statues of individuals were made in recognition of that individual’s contribution to culture and society. Often this was based upon wealth and patronage.’

Jackson’s comments call for an answer to the same question a lot of people have been asking: what kind of people do we want to celebrate on our streets moving forward?

In more recent times the statue of Henry Morton Stanley in Denbigh, Wales – which was unveiled in 2010 – has garnered controversy.

H. M. Stanley worked with the Belgian King Leopold II, who enforced a brutal rule that saw the Congolese enslaved and exploited – all while pocketing from their land.

The statue of him was sculpted by Nick Elphick, who declined to take part in an interview, but did send a lengthy statement.

Elphick explained how he perceives the criticism: ‘The fact that there is a petition to have the Statue of H.M. Stanley taken down makes me feel quite sad, as it was for me – a labour of love and I felt I was doing it for my local area and the people of Congo in Africa.

‘I was made aware of the controversy a quarter of the way into the contract and job. Obviously, it was a great shock to me, and I had to talk to the local historian involved on the project […] I got in touch with the Congolese and I discovered they adored him.

‘I made the decision to not wrongly accuse a man of his time… I felt in my heart that the things said by some about him were exaggerated and not true. I know for sure he did a great deal of good in the Congo.’

The Black Lives Matter movement, the fall of Colston and his consequent trip to the local river has achieved one thing for sure – for us all to interrogate who exactly adorns our streets.