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Monday, 8 June 2020

Shawn-Naphtali Sober's Beautiful Portrait of Bristol




The statue of slave trader, Edward Colston, was pulled down yesterday. It's been standing in the centre of Bristol for decades, a monument to a man whose business resulted in abduction, torture, rape, sexual abuse, and death for tens of thousands of people. You could have Fred and Rosemary West up there and it would be less offensive, and equally 'educational'.

Anyway, the statue was ripped down and thrown into the harbour, an act which has multiple historical resonances in itself. 

The image that I really loved came later in the day, once most of the crowds had gone. It's a picture by Dr Shawn-Naphtali Sobers (one of the few black academics working in photography in the UK), and it shows his friend Rob, jumping up on the plinth and taking the knee. This is one of four frames that Shawn made before Rob jumped off. 

What I love about it so much is the celebratory nature of the image. It combines the present, the past, but overcomes them both in a face that is filled with joyous delight. A lot is written about agency in images, and that is what this picture is all about; an unmediated moment where an unfettered emotion says more about what  the removal of the statue means than words ever could. 

In this picture, Rob takes Colin Kaepernick's knee and ties it directly into a local and global history of slavery, a history in which Colston was directly involved. 


This is what journalist Mike Gardner wrote about Colston.

"Between 1672 and 1689, Colston's company transported more than 100,000 slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and the Americas. To maximise profit, his ships divided their hulls into cramped holds, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. They were stripped and chained in leg irons – the women and children were caged separately and were frequently victims of sexual abuse. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery, smallpox and scurvy meant mortality rates for the eight-week crossing were as high as 20 per cent. Slaves who died or refused to eat were thrown overboard.

A third perished within three years of arriving in the New World after a short life of unimaginable horror, flogged and chained and starved until they could take no more, farming the fields of cotton, sugar, tobacco and molasses."

There were negotiations for some of this information to be included on the statue, but it was blocked and vetoed at multiple levels. Elements in Bristol in particular, and the UK as a whole (and the world as an even bigger whole) is not very good at remembering. It doesn't want to remember the past and it doesn't want to remember the present. (One thing worth remembering is that the statue was only built with great difficulty. There was no outpouring of love to build it, but rather a clutch of tight-fisted apathy)

The problem is the information is out there, the slave trade was commercial and was documented and there are tens of thousands of  people living in the city of Bristol who are absolutely direct direct descendants of that slave trade. And they do remember the past, they have it shoved into their faces every day, in statues, in street names, in the paintings that adorn univeristy walls, in the architecture and economic fabric of the city. 

You can go to sites like Slave Voyages and see where ships embarked from, where they sailed to, what their 'cargo' was, and how many people died. The ancestors of Rob and Shawn were on one of these ships. It's not an abstract matter that has been put to rest a) because it's not abstract, and b) because it has never really been addressed.



These are basic informational graphs, they don't really show the physical, emotional, or social reality of what that slave trade meant. That's what education would do, that's what a proper museum of slavery would do. But we don't have that in Bristol. 

We don't  even have a statue to the people who were kidnapped, enslaved, murdered on those crossings. I think Shawn's image of Rob, cast in bronze and towering 18 feet high above the city would be a great start to redefining who we celebrate and what we celebrate. 

Instead we have statistics and tables detailing how many slaves were trafficked. Brazil and the British Caribbean had by far the highest numbers. That's significant...


the number of slaves disembarked according to destination and century, 1500-1900

...and we have informational devices which are also enlightening, The flip side of all of this information is the mass of personal, social, and economic histories waiting to be told, that are being told, but not finding voice. And once you're aware of those histories, you become more aware of the world around you, and you become aware of your own ignorance. Which is dangerous of course to many people.

Education, and enlightenment is everything. And sometimes pulling down a second rate statue of a second rate man is part of that enlightenment. Thank you Shawn and Rob for the picture. It brightened up my life and is, for me, the most important picture to come out of Bristol for as long as I can remember. 





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