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In the U.K., Public Art Shifts Toward Black Experiences

LONDON — At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, a statue in Bristol, in the southwest of England was pulled from its plinth, stomped on, graffitied and thrown into the river. Before the incident, Edward Colston, the British slave trader and merchant the sculpture depicted, was a name generally only known by historians.

But the toppling of the Colston statue forced into the mainstream conversations about who is represented by public art in Britain, and where Black Britons’ experiences fit within that.

Since then, numerous public sculptures of and by Black people have been erected across Britain. Last year, a bronze monument to Betty Campbell, the first Black woman to become a head teacher in Wales, was unveiled in Cardiff.

The Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke has dedicated much of his four-decade-long practice to reframing the sculptures that people in Britain passively walk by each day. Notably, Locke is known for photographing patriotic statues and decorating the resulting images in a garish manner, which he calls “mindful vandalism,” though he works in a variety of mediums.

Earlier this year, Locke took these efforts one step further, by adapting an existing statue of Queen Victoria outside Birmingham City Council for a project with Ikon Gallery, a contemporary art space in the city.

“Foreign Exchange” placed Victoria in a crate on a ship alongside five smaller replicas of herself, which Locke likened to how the monarch’s image was disseminated across the British Empire as a symbol of power. “​​There is one in Georgetown, Guyana, where I grew up,” Locke said in a phone interview, adding that in 1954, the statue in his hometown was the target of anticolonial protests. “The head was blown off, arms damaged.” In 2018, activists covered the same figure in red paint.

It seems this shift of focus toward more varied public art in Britain will continue. “We’re going to see more public art, whether it’s sculpture, figurative, abstract, commemorating people or events, that relate specifically to the Black community,” said Goodwin, of Art U.K.

“Things are moving in the right direction, and people are really thinking about this,” she added.