For centuries, sculptors of public art have chosen to depict their subjects—often powerful white men—riding on horseback or posing assertively. Artist Thomas J. Price takes a different tack. In Reaching Out, a new bronze statue unveiled this week in London, a nine-foot-tall black woman stands casually and looks at her phone, calm and seemingly oblivious to the world around her.
As Price explains for Time magazine, public art has long been used to “exemplify what power looks like and to maintain the systems of power.” He tells the Guardian’s Mark Brown that he hopes his sculpture can help reframe the public conversation about power and representation in public art.
“I want this sculpture to be an opportunity for people to connect emotionally with an image of someone they might not have noticed before,” Price says. “ … Often the most powerful person in the room is the person in the background, or fiddling, or not sitting bolt upright smiling.”
Reaching Out is now on view at the Line, a free public art walkway near the Stratford district, reports Naomi Rea for artnet News. The sculpture is one of just a “handful” of public works in the United Kingdom to depict black women—and one of the few created by a black artist.
Price’s sculpture arrives in the midst of a renewed debate about the role of public art and historical memory. After Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice erupted around the world in May, many in the U.K. started reconsidering statues of racist historical figures. Activists in Oxford called for the removal of statues of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, while protesters in Bristol took matters into their own hands by dumping a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into a nearby harbor.
Even with certain statues’ removal, the debate was far from over: In July, white artist Marc Quinn secretly placed a temporary statue of a black woman on the plinth where Colston’s likeness had once stood. The move divided the art world, with critics deriding it as opportunistic and supporters citing it as an act of allyship. Local authorities removed the unauthorized sculpture the day after its installation.
In a Twitter post, Price criticized the work as a “votive statue to appropriation.”
Expanding on this line of thinking in commentary for the Art Newspaper, Price added, “[F]or a white artist to suddenly capitalize on the experiences of Black pain, by putting themselves forward to replace the statutes of white slave owners seems like a clear example of a savior complex and cannot be the precedent that is set for genuine allyship.”
Giving “financial support and production facilities” to a young black artist who could “reclaim their history in an authentic way” would have been a more genuine example of allyship, the artist argued.
The ongoing conversation regarding public art makes Price’s newest work all the more timely. As Megan Piper, director of the Line, tells the Evening Standard’s Zoe Paskett, “The lack of diversity in the public realm is under long-overdue scrutiny and this installation—as a portrait of a contemporary black woman, rather than a sculpture depicting a historically celebrated (white male) figure—feels particularly pertinent.”
In June, London mayor Sadiq Khan announced a commission to “review and improve diversity” in the city’s public art.
Though London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, most of its public plaques and sculptures reflect white historical figures and Victorian Britain, the mayor said in a statement.
“It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade and while this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been willfully ignored,” Khan added.
Like many of Price’s works—including Network and Cover Up (The Reveal)—Reaching Out is an anonymous, fictionalized portrait intended as a celebration of everyday black life. His “everywoman” derives inspiration from multiple sitters, Price tells artnet News.
By creating monumental sculptures of everyday people, Price hopes to challenge historical notions of “grand triumphant sculpture,” he says to the Guardian.
As the artist adds in Time, “[I]f you’re a Black person being represented in sculpture, you don’t have to be an athlete, or strike a pose, or fulfil an expectation.”