One of Britain’s most celebrated sculptors has proposed a novel solution to the argument over the disputed Cecil Rhodes statue above an Oxford university college: turn the colonialist to face the wall in shame.
Sir Antony Gormley, known for striking public art such as The Angel of the North, told the Financial Times that giving Rhodes a twist would help address “collective amnesia” over such memorials while confronting the inequities of the nation’s imperial past.
“Rhodes should remain in his niche,” Gormley said, rejecting arguments for the removal of the 19th century imperialist from an Oriel College facade. “If we need to readdress our relationship to him, I would just simply turn him to face the wall rather than facing outwards.”
Adjusting his position would mark “an acknowledgment of collective shame” but also “reassert the fact that Oriel College and many institutions have property from Rhodes’ riches”, Gormley said.
The statue has been the subject of a fraught, six-year tussle between the anti-colonialist Rhodes Must Fall movement, a divided university, and ministers who have adamantly opposed removing such “historic monuments”. The college decided last week to retain the statue in situ.
Gormley, who made a standing bronze figure that looks out over another part of Oxford, described the moment the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was “dunked and recovered” from Bristol Harbour last year as a kind of “baptism”. But he remains wary of moving controversial memorials to museums.
“Public statuary becomes subject to collective amnesia extremely quickly. I don’t think it is a bad thing to ask again ‘who are these people and why are they here?’. But by removing them you accept the amnesia,” he said.
Rhodes founded Rhodesia and the diamond company De Beers and devoted part of the fortune he amassed in Africa to support Oxford colleges and establish the eponymous scholarship for beneficiaries such as Bill Clinton, the former US president.
Critics say his record of exploiting black workers and laying the foundations for racial segregation in southern Africa should be condemned, not honoured.
Facing street protests over the statue last year, Oriel’s governing body initially voted in favour of removing it and established an independent commission to explore the issues raised by his legacy and memorials.
But after the commission’s report was completed, Oriel last week changed tack and decided to keep the monument in place. It cited the costs of securing planning permission, which would be lengthy and likely to be blocked by Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for local government.
The commission’s 114-page report explored options for Oriel including moving the Rhodes statue indoors, leaving the niche empty, or commissioning new artwork to fill the space.
Sir John Hayes, a Tory MP who chairs parliament’s “Common Sense Group”, welcomed Gormley’s arguments in favour of keep the statue but called the idea of turning it round “completely wacky”. “This is about as close to mainstream opinion as I am to abstract expressionism,” he said.