The statue of slave trader Edward Colston was replaced in Bristol on Wednesday morning – with a sculpture of one of the protesters whose anger brought him down.
The figure of Jen Reid, who was photographed standing on the plinth with her fist raised after the 17th-century merchant was toppled by Black Lives Matter demonstrators last month, was erected at dawn by a team directed by the artist Marc Quinn.
The ambush sculpture is likely to reignite the debate over public statuary in the UK that began with the toppling of the Colston figure five weeks ago. On Wednesday morning police said they had had no complaints and it was “a matter for Bristol city council”.
Marvin Rees, the city’s mayor, issued a statement saying that “the future of the plinth and what is installed on it must be decided by the people of Bristol”. He said the sculpture was “the work and decision of a London-based artist,” and added: “It was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed.”
But he stopped short of saying that the council would act to remove it.
Arriving in two lorries before 5am, a team of 10 people worked quickly to install the figure of Reid, who said she had been secretly working with Quinn on the idea for weeks. It came as a complete surprise to the authorities, who are yet to announce their plans for the location.
A cardboard placard reading “black lives still matter” was placed at the bottom of the plinth.
Shortly after the vehicles drove away, Reid stood in front of the statue with her fist in the air. “It’s just incredible,” she said. “That’s pretty fucking ballsy, that it is.”
After meticulous planning to ensure the statue could be erected quickly enough to have it in place before officials arrived, the vehicles left the scene about 15 minutes after they got there. “I just knew it was going to happen,” said Reid. “They were so efficient.”
The most powerful moment of the morning, she said later, was “watching children stand next to it and raising their fists. Black children and white children, together.”
Quinn said that the installation had gone well. “It went exactly the opposite of how it imagined, because I imagined it being stopped,” he said. “It almost feels like it’s been there forever. It gets under the skin before you understand what it is, which I think is how you make people think about things, how you pose the question a different way and renew the conversation.”
By late morning the only council presence had been a roadsweeper, whose driver stopped to take a picture before continuing on his shift.
“It is incredible seeing it,” said Jen Reid’s daughter, Leila Reid, arriving and gazing up at the statue a little later. “It’s surreal. From the kneecap to the shape of her hands - it’s just her.” She said she had struggled to keep the secret since her mother told her. “She’s proud to represent a movement, and if there’s a better way to do that I can’t think of it.”
Reid, a stylist, attended the march with her husband, who one of the group that rolled the statue of Colston to the river after it was pulled down. She said that to stand for the BLM movement was “massive”, but “it would be just as big if it was someone else representing the same thing.”
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Quinn – whose best known works include his “blood head” self-portrait Self and a sculpture of an artist that temporarily occupied the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, Alison Lapper Pregnant – said he viewed it as a duty for prominent white artists to amplify other voices.
“Jen created the sculpture when she stood on the plinth and raised her arm in the air,” said Quinn. “Now we’re crystallising it.”
In the weeks since the Colston statue was removed, although ideas including a Banksy proposal and calls for a statue of civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson have been floated, and a mannequin of the notorious paedophile Jimmy Savile was briefly installed before falling off, no permanent decision on the future of the Colston site has been reached.
The new black resin and steel figure – entitled A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020 – was transported from Quinn’s studio on Tuesday and stored overnight nearby. It was put in place using a hydraulic crane truck parked next to the plinth.
The team carried out the same surveys and health and safety checks it would have gone through on a more conventional work, Quinn said, adding that it would be “extremely difficult to move”. But he added: “This is not a permanent artwork.”
Reid said it had been difficult to keep the secret from friends and family. “When friends say ‘I’ll see you later,’ I think … yeah, you will!”
On whether there was an issue with a white artist being behind the work, Reid said: “It’s not even a question. If we have allies, it doesn’t matter what colour they are. He has done something to represent BLM, and to keep the conversation going.”
A placard was briefly placed on the plinth reading “Marc Quinn loves money, not blacks” before it was removed by another member of the public to applause.
Others were broadly positive in their response. “It’s a really great addition to the centre of Bristol,” said Bobby Loyal, an engineer. “I just hope no one tries to rip this down. The statue before was offensive to a lot of people, I don’t think this is. I think the council should leave it in place.”
Sanna Bertilsson, who was cycling past, did a double take as she saw the figure and stopped to look. “I didn’t know they were replacing it,” she said. “It’s absolutely beautiful.” Told that it had been put up without permission, she said: “I’d better get a picture before they take it down.”
The author Bernardine Evaristo tweeted that “some people will find this image of black empowerment offensive/outrageous/threatening” but that she thought it was “wonderful”.