BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND — Nobody seems to know where the statue went after the council had it removed. The figure of Queen Victoria draped in royal robes and holding her orb and scepter had been commissioned at the cost of £2,000 from the sculptor and Royal Academician Thomas Brock. It was a gift from Henry Barber to the city of Birmingham to mark the Diamond Jubilee in the summer of 1897. Standing 11 feet in height, it was installed on its plinth of Cornish granite on January 10, 1901, eleven days before the Queen’s death, close to an 1855 statue of Robert Peel (relocated in 1927) and an 1883 statue of John Skirrow Wright (destroyed in the 1950s). The Birmingham Police Brass Band played Rule Britannia, and the Lord Mayor declared the monument to the Queen would be “in its present position for all future time.” Permission was granted from the Palace to name the square in front of the Council House where it stands Victoria Square. But as George Noszlopy described in his study of The Public Sculpture of Birmingham, the soot, the dust, the exhaust fumes, and half a century of acid rain falling on this industrial city caused incrustations, flaking, and fractures in the statue’s Sicilian marble — to such an extent that after the war it was removed and recast in bronze.
A photograph in the Illustrated London News from June 1951 shows Princess Elizabeth, the future queen, at the unveiling, tugging a cord so the union flag drapery falls away. Skip forward seven more decades to another June morning in Birmingham and the bronze reproduction is dressed up once again — this time in a new work by another Royal Academician, Hew Locke, which adds a further layer to the life-history of this figure. “Foreign Exchange” is a temporary public sculpture that brings several longstanding themes in Locke’s sculptural practice — sovereignty, militarism, boats, and the enduring nature of colonialism — into dialogue in this public space at the heart of the UK’s second–largest city. Commissioned by Ikon Gallery as part of the B22 Festival that marks Birmingham’s hosting of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, the artwork does not replace or remove elements of the figure but instead adds to them. In a construction of fiberglass and resin made in a collaboration with Pangolin Editions, “Foreign Exchange” fixes Victoria in a crate on a ship, where she is joined on deck by five smaller replicas of herself. The effect is to evoke how the monarch’s image was manufactured and shipped to scores of sites across the British Empire.
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The figures sport the gold helmets of a warrior and carry oversized replicas of 19th-century colonial war medals as if they were shields: the Serangapatam Medal, the Afghanistan Medal, the East and West Africa Medal, the Abercromby Medallion, and the Ashanti Medal. The boat points south, and as you approach it from Hill Street, this piratical brigade of royal clones enters a kind of dialogue with the allegorical figure groups of the four neo-classical pediments of the Town Hall façade behind them: gunmakers, jewelers, an hourglass, a globe, and the central figure of Britannia, her arms outstretched to reward the manufacturers of Birmingham.
Part of the inspiration for this new work, Locke tells me in a video call, comes from the history of another figure of Victoria which he knew when growing up in Guyana. The life history of that statue is a kind of cautionary tale. Commissioned to mark Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, the marble statue by Henry Richard Hope-Pinker was installed outside the Law Courts in Georgetown in 1894, dynamited in 1954 during protests against the British military removal of Guyana’s newly elected democratic government, relocated to Georgetown’s botanical gardens in 1970 to mark Guyana’s independence, but reinstalled in 1990 in front of the Supreme Court of Judicature. Carrying this memory with him, Locke’s longstanding interest in reimagining such figures had until now been restricted to proposals, painting and drawing on photographs of statues including one of the Georgetown Victoria in his 2013 work “Hinterland.” Locke has described this series as a form of “mindful vandalism.” Now one of what he has described as his “impossible proposals” has been realized, what kind of allegory is generated by Locke’s new work, what kind of transformation?
The inherent reproducibility and sheer ubiquity of Victoria’s image have often been pointed out. For example, in his 2001 film marking the centenary of her death, Jonathan Meades observed how “our institutions are Victorian; our traditions are Victorian; indeed the very idea of tradition is Victorian.” There have been many different artistic engagements with these statues of Victoria over the past two decades. As Michael Hatt has recently documented, these range from Tatsurou Bashi’s “Villa Victoria” at the 2002 Liverpool Biennial and Sophie Ernst’s “Silent Empress” in Wakefield (2012), to Hadley+Maxwell’s “The Queen Still Falls to You” in Dublin (2014). And then there is that most eloquent of grassroots sculptural gestures: the repeated throwing of red paint onto the statue in Victoria Park in Kitchener, Ontario.
“Foreign Exchange” brings a fresh approach to these refractions and instabilities, and it has quickly drawn out some powerful voices in the city seeking to whip up moral panic. Glyn Pitchford, chair of the Birmingham Big Art Project, declared the work a “desecration.” Stephen Hartland, chair of the Birmingham Civic Society’s Public Art Committee, called it “woke rubbish” and claimed, improbably, that he “hadn’t heard of the installation until it was on top of the plinth” — despite plans for the installation being widely reported in the art press and local newspapers for months. “Foreign Exchange” thus shines a light not so much on the Queen as on the neo-Victorian culture warriors who hold positions of power in civic and amenity societies, replicating an outdated worldview. In doing so Locke starts to move beyond the ideology of “retain and explain,” or what Birmingham-based writer Nathaniel Adam Tobias
Coleman has called “Back to Plaque.” Their call for Black Perspectives on Birmingham’s Memorials chimes with the observation by another Birmingham-based thinker, Sumaya Kassim, about how Victorian institutions like museums and monuments continue to form part of a “system of justification” for colonial violence. Locke’s installation adds another dimension to those urgent discussions.
A 15-minute walk from Victoria Square, another commission as part of the B22 Festival adopts a different, more directly anti-colonial approach to imperial monumentality. In the gallery at Eastside Projects in Digbeth, “A Starry-Eyed Subspecies” (2022) is a full-size equestrian statue made from resin, hair, moss, leather, brass, beads, and foam. It is the centerpiece of Rajni Perera’s exhibition Traveller. Born in Sri Lanka and based in Toronto, Perera’s work imagines the world that comes after ecological collapse and the end of white suprematism. In this near future, the legacy world-views of extractivist capitalist-colonialism fail. Cultural rather than political answers are found for a damaged, mutated, poisoned, overheated world. The figure of the climate refugee displaces that of the Western explorer. The migrant unseats the colonizer. The Traveller rides a “post-horse” and is surrounded by hybrid pollution-wear masks, a “truth-ring,” and images of floods, journeys, and ancestors. With the Birmingham artist Annatomix, Perera also made a public mural on the bank of the River Rea in Highgate, one of the most deprived areas of Birmingham, depicting figures taking their possessions by boat to a place of safety.
What a time for Birmingham to host the Commonwealth Games. In this jubilee year towards the close of a Queen’s long reign that echoes the 1890s, Barbados has become a republic and the movement for reparations is gathering pace. In this context, the B22 Festival brings a remarkable range of art to the city this summer, including Nigerian artist Abdulrazaq Awofeso’s solo show Out of the Frame at Ikon, Blood and Fire, an exhibition of Vanley Burke’s photography at Soho House, and John Akomfrah’s moving 2012 portrait of Stuart Hall in The Unfinished Conversation at the MAC as well as these works by Locke and Perera.
As I walked back from Eastside Projects to Victoria Square, I was still thinking of the unknown fate of that marble Victoria corroded by the acid rain, perhaps in a museum storeroom somewhere, or perhaps destroyed. I took a detour up Corporation Street to check in on Harry Bates’s 1886 statue of Queen Victoria. It’s still there above the entrance to Birmingham Magistrates Court, looking down over an image of St. George slaying the dragon, behind a mesh to keep the pigeons off. The image and name of Victoria run through the veins of Britain’s civic public spaces as a curse from another millennium would. If we understand, as Max Liboiron has suggested we must, pollution as colonialism, then can we join the dots between Hew Locke’s recentring of a recast relic of imperialism and Rajni Perera’s anti-colonial vision of a culture that can outlive disaster capitalism- colonialism? Britain needs both types of intervention in these times, this period between the fall of Colston and the inevitable eventual fall of Rhodes: the memory-work, and the hope. From marble to bronze to fiberglass, let’s hold onto that image of a lost marble sovereign that decayed because of the toxic atmosphere she created and ruled over. Now just how reproducible could that imperial auto-decay turn out to be?
Foreign Exchange continues at Victoria Square (Birmingham, England) through August 15.
Traveller continues at Eastside Projects (86 Heath Mill Ln, Deritend, Birmingham, England) through August 6. The exhibition was curated by the gallery.