Colston Fall, One Year On: Reflections from M Shed, Bristol

By Melissa Chemam

All over the world, since the toppling of this one in Bristol, the ripple effect has been felt everywhere and people who had hardly heard of Bristol, UK, suddenly penned their opinion about a movement they had not seen coming. They didn’t know about Countering Colston, or the activism that demanded the removal of the statue or the change of name of the Colston Hall — now Beacon (of hope?) — but admit Bristol people were pioneers.

The statue of Edward Colston, as exhibited at Bristol’s M Shed museum (photo by Melissa Chemam)

But let’s go back to Colston and the significance of the moment before I end this blog post.

In his recent essay for The Art Review, Dan Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford, Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, and author of The Brutish Museums (Pluto Press), which advocates for the return of stolen artefacts and decolonisation of European and American museums, is addressing the legacy of the toppling gesture.

And he writes: “The grassroots practice of physically dismantling cultural infrastructure that promotes white supremacy — has been part of anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles since at least the early 1960s, when a ‘statue war’ broke out in Algeria at the moment of independence. The impulse towards preservation was also part of that history from the start. Back then, it operated as a kind of counter-insurgency. Algerians started defacing and destroying plaques and statues that commemorated colonial domination, making that domination and violence persist. The French military responded with a massive salvage operation. More than one hundred monuments were collected, shipped across the Mediterranean, and, as Alain Amato documented in his 1977 book Monuments en exil, re-installed in towns and cities across France. The Enlightenment maxim expressed by Diderot in 1795 hung in the air: ‘My friend, if we love truth more than the fine arts then let us pray to God for iconoclasts’.”

As a French-Born writer of Algerian roots, I can only relate too well. My entire family was involved in the independent war against metropolitan and colonial France, and maybe died in the fight for freedom.

Dan Hicks continues by quoting n Frantz Fanon, who described colonialism as ‘a world of statues’. In his famous book The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon indeed wrote how each statue never stops representing the exact same message: ‘We are here by the force of bayonets’. “We learn from Fanon that every monument to anti-Black violence operates to re-inscribe that violence every day it remains on display. But is Colston still falling? Or did the museum break his fall?” Hicks ask.

As a white man writing about these issues, he voices what us, formerly colonised people, women, people of colours, ‘ethnic and religious minorities’ still struggle to state in public, for a lack of authoritative voices to let us do so.

The reason I came to Bristol is precisely to write about how arts, artists, and activists deal with such complex debate. And because it was extremely hard for me to do so in France. As the daughter of Algerian freedom fighters, I have always felt suspicion, and always been refused pitches and articles.

So after working in Africa and on post-colonial issues for years for non-French media, I was inspired to write more about these issues here in England, to come to Bristol to write a book centred on the Bristol band Massive Attack, to address these matters via their multicultural and counter-cultural journey. And the 2nd and 12th chapters address the issue of Colston and the Merchant Venturers in depth.

But I’ve not taken part in the public debate this year for now.

For many reasons.

First, because many people are currently jumping on the bandwagon and trying to claim they had a fair share in decolonising, while they had no say in the matter when they were in power to do so, like the current mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, fearing it could jeopardise his next carrier move.

The second reason is that most people in Bristol think it’s a ‘Bristol’ matter, like many issues around here, they are held by gatekeepers, and I’m everything but one of them.

Yet, I’m part of the conversation, as a Bristol citizen, as a writer on African-European relations and post-colonial reflections, as a Lecturer in Journalism and Media production at the University of the West of England, as the writer in residence at the Arnolfini Gallery, one of Brisotl’s main art centre. I hope I will remain.

I know that most British people don’t value the study of history much, let alone colonial history. so how could I ask them to know Algerian-French history? However, the brutal, early and unique colonisation of Algeria by France, from as early as 1830, led the path to the rest of the colonial process. The infamous ‘Scramble for Africa’, the horrendous sharing of the continent between European powers that led to the conflicting borders Africa knows today date from… 1885, 55 years later. Algeria was also of of the rare examples of settler colonialism, where the European settlers moved ‘en masse’ to the country, and tried to outnumbers the local and indigenous inhabitants. With the rare other examples being South African, Palestine and… well the United States of America, all based on apartheid for decades, if not until today.

“Does Colston’s provisional preservation repeat the nostalgic counterinsurgency of the French army in Algeria?” Ask Hicks, “Or could it catalyse some new form of co-curation that destabilises the statue, and makes the fall rather than the man endure?”

He continues: “This temporary display would be a positive first step in such a process. As someone who lived in Bristol for twelve years — first in in the 1970s and then in the 1990s-2000s — and like many who know this statue, I was moved to tears by visiting. Everyone who cares about racism, empire and slavery should see this exhibit. It should win awards. But that’s hardly the point. This is the kind of exhibit you come away from feeling that you can’t wait for it to be closed. I mean, the kind of exhibit that you come away from wishing to God it had never been necessary to create.”

As a Bristol resident who came to address these issues in 2015, after crossing 15 African countries, America and the Caribbean, and after working for a year on a film to come on the Algerian years of Frantz Fanon, I ask the same questions.

And I thank Dan Hicks for his work and his voice.

But that story concerns me directly. Yet, all my pitches to the Art Review have always been ignored, as well as the one to Frieze.

Hopefully, one day, I won’t feel silenced when it come to this debate.

As a writer who feel extremely blessed to have been published widely, I have to wonder: If I feel silenced, how many other Algerians, Africans and other direct victims of colonialism with a story to tell feel the same? Probably hundreds, thousands if not hundreds of thousands…

Hicks recommend to not display the statue further.

“Should Colston now be venerated in the carceral spaces of the museum store for posterity?” he asks. “I’d prefer to see him returned to the bottom of the harbour, sunk forever into the Avon mud and forgotten. But whatever the fate of the statue, let’s keep Colston falling.”

Now that it’s here, and hearing the manipulation around history, see how many ignore colonial history so widely, I’d say maybe such displays are still necessary.

Isn’t everyone on Earth condemning fiercely slavery? I cannot fathom… Slavery is a hot topic, yet the bigger problem is colonialism, the consequences of which are still very real in our every day life. As long as millions of us have to face to live an impaired and unfulfilled life because of this ideology, we need to keep on educating, fighting for knowledge and equal rights, and producing art, music, films and writing that enable us to build a different future.

That won’t happen through party politics, activism recuperation or white people’s guilt and ‘saviour’ complex.

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I encourage everyone to go and see the display, or read about it, with an open mind, and to remember that the debate is far from ‘black and white’. So aren’t its protagonists.

Freelance journalist/writer, I’ve reported in 30 countries for the BBC, CBC, DW, magazines, on African-European relations, social change, arts, music & politics