Liverpool’s public spaces abound with figures cast in bronze. Indeed, the city itself boasts more public sculptures than any other in the United Kingdom outside of Westminster. Journey in by train and you’re met with immortalised copies of Ken Dodd and Bessie Braddock. Come in by sea, and your passage into the city is carefully framed by a tribute to four of its most exported sons. When Liverpool’s public spaces are bereft of human activity, its network of statues serve as reminders that this most Victorian of public rituals continues to dominate ideas about our public spaces and how they are used.
And yet, many of us pass our bronze neighbours without much more than a quick glance. Towering above our commutes to work and strolls in the park, our indifference to these pedestalled giants had become as assured as the thick coat of oxidised green that now covers their former grandeur.
That was until June 2020, when the statue of disgraced slave trader Edward Colston was torn down and rolled into the Bristol Harbour in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd.
Since then, our statues have become much more noticeable. Not only that; they’ve become more perceptible to public considerations about who we choose to memorialise, who we choose to celebrate, and who gets to make those types of decisions.
A bellwether of what we were about to witness in many of our public squares – a defaced Churchill plinth and the voluntary removal of a statue commemorating Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell – Edward Colston cuts deep into the modern statues debate.
In the days following Colston’s removal, Liverpool was one of the first cities in the UK to confront both its statues and its relationship to the transatlantic slave trade from which it built its enormous wealth. Conversations around (in)famous street names, architecture and the school curriculum were quickly and powerfully funneled into wider questions about how our city’s policymakers plan on directing the energy for change into considered action.
Over the Summer, many of Liverpool’s statues were reimagined as part of a project between Sky Arts and Culture Liverpool, the council’s cultural engagement arm. Decorating many of the city’s most famous statues with fabric and other artwork, Statues Redressed challenged, celebrated and reframed public discourse around the modern function of statues and the role, if any, that public memorials should play.
Karen Arthur, one of the artists invited to take part in Statues Redressed, was tasked with reimagining Derby Square’s neo-Baroque monument to Queen Victoria. “I love the idea of reimagining statues and getting people to think more deeply about the monuments they walk past,” she tells us. “I was interested in drawing the connection between her and the abolitionist movement that was happening at the beginning of her reign.”
A main source of inspiration for Karen’s artwork came from an unusual relationship Queen Victoria had with a woman born into slavery. “During my research I learned about a Black woman named Martha Ricks who was born into slavery but moved freely to Liberia,” Karen continues. “She was an accomplished quilter and gifted Queen Victoria with a satin quilt that she had made herself.”
Featuring Ankara prints in a nod to the direct link between the continent of Africa and the exchange of human labour that built Liverpool’s wealth, Karen’s fabric similarly became a tangible memorial to her Black ancestors. “As a Black woman it was sometimes difficult to process and comprehend the pain in our shared history. Black History is everyone’s history and it’s been hidden or ignored for centuries.”
Statues Redressed is available to watch on Sky TV on demand and on the NOW streaming service.