Living within the cracks of Bristol’s championed progression is a burgeoning feeling of resentment towards the city’s ties to slavery. Souvenirs of this bloodstained past are littered around the city in many forms, such as street names (‘Guinea Street’) and the statue of 17th-century slaveholder Edward Colston, which was famously toppled into the harbour by Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters in June. Having withstood nearly a century of campaigns for its removal, this provided a cathartic moment for many.
Consequently, a global ripple effect ignited many more acts of resistance, including the secret installation of A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020; a statue of a local black woman, Jen Reid, on the plinth previously occupied by Colston - but, unlike Colston’s statue, Jen was speedily removed by the council in under 25 hours. The iconic scene was fleeting, but what did it mean for black women and the BLM movement?
Having felt “summoned” by the statue, local creative producer, Euella Jackson, tactfully orchestrated a same-day photoshoot with a dozen other young black women (including myself.) Donning Black Panther-esque attire and game faces we posed in formation alongside Jen, each powerful shot being interjected with the sound of laughter. Euella describes her initial thought when seeing Jen: “In all honesty, it felt rare to see a black woman in a space like that. I wanted to capture the breadth, beauty and strength of black women as activists, protectors and works of art.”
Cast in black resin, the true-to-size sculpture encapsulated Jen’s elegant natural curls under a stylish beret with her fist held high in the black power salute – the symbolic blackness of the sculpture being a middle finger to glorified colonial figures everywhere. The familiarity of a modern black woman’s physical body portrayed through such an unfamiliar medium gave it a captivating quality and also called into question the ways in which we are (or aren’t, rather) valued and celebrated. The solution that Euella proposes is "taking up space" and, rather than waiting on the well overdue recognition from others, facilitating our own celebrations of self and our fellow sisters.
She went on to describe her experience in the wake of recent events as ‘traumatic to say the least’ - when witnessing your people being relentlessly slaughtered in the streets for simply existing, usually with no care for accountability (see: Breonna Taylor) it can feel like there is no respite for our community. That is why these micro-triumphs are so important as, however brief, they often resonate to therapeutic ends, providing a small dose of hope that many of us had been dearly craving.
I caught up with the sculpture subject, Jen Reid, who explained what the most powerful moment was for her: “It was seeing beautiful black girls standing in front of the statue. Seeing them brought a tear to my eye as I had said from the outset that I hope the statue would bring hope and power to young black girls when they see it and they epitomised that hope.” It is safe to say that this iconic moment fuelled some serious self-love and encouraged an upkeep of cause determination. Not only we can identify the heart-warming effects of sisterly solidarity, echoing the “power in unity” BLM slogan, we can also see how positive affirmation causes a chain reaction. Positivity breeds positivity, change breeds change. Picturing similar actions on a larger, more permanent scale, we can only imagine the potential for young black folk, especially in terms of how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world.
The Jen Reid statue has undeniably sent messages of empowerment and potential change that have boosted the morale of BLM supporters and maintained momentum. In the end, the iconography of a slaveholder statue being torn down by the hands of BLM protesters, rolled into the harbour where his slave ships had once docked, to then be replaced by the statue of a local black woman with a black power stance, holds a poetic sweetness that will remain ingrained in our memories for a lifetime. In the words of local graphic designer Stacey Olika "The statue lasted 24 hours but history still remains”.
Written by Nosipho Ledwaba-Chapman - pictures by @rubywalkerphoto_