Research in Lockdown: Fashionable Statues
Dr Louise Purbrick, Principal Lecturer in History of Art and Design, discusses the blurring of the everyday, research, and activism.
On the day George Floyd was buried, Tuesday 9 June, I was standing, two metres distant from the person in front and from the person behind me, in supermarket queue in the south coast town where my mum lives. I was shopping for her: a frail great-grandmother, an asthmatic of many years and once a determined pacifist and human rights campaigner who now does not go out. The slow queue gave me time to look at the racks of magazines. Two July 2020 Vogue covers were side by side, each displayed a head and shoulder portrait without the distraction of fashionable garments that would usually seduce consumers into buying the magazine. Zips, a tie and a headscarf created the clothing context for a focus upon two faces. Fashion system references were absent. The symbols that interrupted the plain work clothes were belonged to public transport system and the everyday high street. Small print informed readers, or bystanders like me, that the portraits were of a train driver and supermarket assistant. ‘The New Frontline’ was the cover copy under each face, one male and one female, both impassive and dignified; their features in the symmetrical balance of art historical beauty: they were statuesque and they were black.
My first thought was the fallout from the killing of George Floyd is far reaching indeed. If the Black Lives Matter resistance to the racism of institutionalised the white violence is registered in elite publishing houses such as Vogue maybe change, long time coming, is really coming. The intersection inequalities of health newly exposed through global coronavirus pandemic with the historical persistence of inequalities of racism has increased the urgency of change. My second thought was a recollection of my colleague Dr Charlotte Nicklas, talking to History of Art and Design students taking the Year 3 Theorising Objects module about the historical absence of black models, especially those with dark skin tones, in Vogue. Absence is combined with appropriation in fashion spreads that use a global south backdrop for its edgy but always staged show of fashion. Everyday routines, such as shopping for my mum, my academic work and my activist life has always been blurred but never more so than now.
Just a week before, Tuesday 2 June, I was holding the last seminar of an MA module, Heritage in a Global Context, of which the global context was not just historical sites across the world but the COVID-19 lockdowns that meant supporting discussions from my living room. Since the online platforms can detract from spontaneous exchanges that characterise our work on this module, I set some readings to provide a focus for our last gathering. One of which was an International Journal of Heritage Studies piece by Lisa Johnson (2014) on how a small Netherlands town, Hoorn, had dealt with statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen a seventeenth century governor general of the Dutch United East India Company who had invaded Banda Islands and was oversaw the killing of thousands of inhabitants and enslavement of others to Batavia, now Indonesia. Lisa Johnson introduces the debate that took place in his hometown:
On the 8 O’clock news of 5 July 2011, the Dutch national broadcasting company (NOS) reported that the local authority of Hoorn was going to put a new text on the base of the statue of J.P. Coen (1596–1629), located in the centre of their town. Some local residents felt that the statue should be removed altogether as in their opinion Coen had been responsible for genocide (583).
We had studied the controversy over the removal of confederate statues in the US earlier in the year and no-one was surprised by the implications of Lisa Johnson’s article regarding ‘dissonant’ heritage: all heritage of colonialism is dissonant to some extent. And, after our discussion we probably better prepared than many to understand why the likeness of Edward Colston was plunged to the bottom of Bristol’s harbour on Sunday 7 June, just days after our discussion. In Belgium, statues of King Leopold II, who presided over the horrors of the extraction and export of rubber from the Congo were subject similar act of iconoclasm. I wondered about the future fate of Jan Pieterszoon Coen. The work on our History of Art and Design programme, on our BAs and MAs, especially that addressed to the political agency that lies within the forms of material world, the lively and all too real effects of that objects and images that often dismissed as merely symbolic, is more relevant now that it has ever been. Why should heritage of colonialism be preserved? What does it mean to continue or to contest the legacies of racism that have been cast into metal and elevated in stone? I never thought I would say this but Vogue, with its frontline black workers classically framed and appropriately celebrated on its July covers, makes an important intervention into an art historical matter that has become an urgent political debate.
Morrisons Supermarket, Worthing, 9 June 2020. Photograph by the author.
Black Lives Matter demonstration 13 June, Brighton. Photograph by Asha Christie-Davies.