New Welsh Review

Lest We Forget

Wanda Zyborska writes about HM Stanley, Denbigh, memorialisation and art, asking, How can we have equality without diversity in our cultural representations?

PUBLISHED ON: 28/07/20

CATEGORY: Column, Opinion

TAGS: #blacklivesmatter, Africa, America, American Civil War, BAME, Bristol, Congo, Denbigh, HM Stanley, King Leopard of Belgium, Slavery, abuse, art, celebration, exploitation, feminist, gender, historical, humour, international, local authority, memorialisation, middle age, performance, politics, protest, public opinion, reputation, rubber, shame

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The recent actions of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters tearing down statues of the slave owner Edward Colston in Bristol has drawn public attention to memorials as never before. People question why we ought to remember so many horrible white men (97.5% of human statues in the UK are of men). For academic Claudia-Florentina Dobre, memorials are ‘marks of identity for the individual, the group, the city, and the nation. They are concrete images of the relation to the past of the society that builds, commemorates, and sometimes destroys them’. What kind of people should we remember by way of our collective investment, both financial and emotional, in public art? Who decides? Who pays? Why have memorials to people in the first place?

The answers to these questions are surprisingly complex. Lobbying and fundraising goes on behind the scenes, motives range from (often misguided) hero worship and admiration to political and financial propaganda, via symbolism and false histories. We ignore the subliminal power of these images at our peril.

Figure 1. Wanda Zyborska (2012-2020). The Seventh Annual HM Stanley Funeral Condom Re-veiling 2018. Photograph Antonia Dewhurst


Style and content are closely linked. The early Egyptians equated form with identity, believing that statues confer immortality on the subject. It is not only the style of these (non) representations that needs updating. Equal opportunities policy has not yet been applied to this powerful yet often overlooked cultural magic. Where are the people of colour and women? How can we have equality without diversity in our cultural representations?

To answer some of these questions, I am taking a look at themes of race and gender in public statues, through my own and other artists’ work. I will pay particular attention to the annual protest performance in the small market town of Denbigh against a statue of the imperialist explorer Henry Morton Stanley (1841–1904) that was erected in 2011 (pictures 1, 2 and 4). In this performance, a group of fellow artist/activists, and myself take a huge rubber condom, made by myself, to re-veil the sculpture, symbolically reversing its unveiling and stopping the spread of colonial greed and abuse of power.

Figure 2. Wanda Zyborska (2012-20) First Annual HM Stanley Funeral Condom Re-Veiling, Denbigh, 2012. Photograph Lysbeth Mair Jones


In 2017, statues of Confederate generals in America were torn down after a white supremacist ploughed his car into a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators at Charlottesville, Virginia, causing mass injuries and killing Heather Heyer, a thirty-two-year-old (white) paralegal. Like the statue to HM Stanley in Denbigh,the Confederate statues looked as though they were Victorian bronzes. However, it is surprising to note thatmany were new, erected in the 1950s and 60s, in opposition to the Civil Rights movements, or in the Jim Crow period following (and restricting) the emancipation of slaves. They are built in an ersatz and nostalgic colonial style that ignores the inhuman suffering underpinning these histories. They represent a contradictory negation and whitewashing of the past (things were different then, that could never happen now) and a clinging to what they see as its ‘values’ (heroism, nationalism, wealth).

Figure 3. Federal troops fire tear gas at peaceful BLM protesters in Portland. July 2020, Photograph Doug Brown, ACLU of Oregon


The legacies of that era are evident in the institutionalised racism of police in the USA (and the UK), and the poverty and violence that bedevils former colonies like the Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world, and whose foundations Stanley created, in the Congo Free State. This exploitation continues today, perverting the wealth of the country’s natural resources by foreign companies, who use children as young as six to work in its poisonous cobalt mines for around £1.50 a day, making batteries for First World mobile phones.

The peaceful medieval town of Denbigh in north Wales makes a perfect model in miniature for these complex and conflicting histories and representations. Above the square is the castle built to control the citizens after the conquest of Wales by the colonial King Edward I in 1282. In the square, two statues exemplify the racial and gender balance of public art in the UK. They are the statue of a bullying and self-glorifying white man and an allegorical statue of a (white) woman named ‘Winged Peace’ on the war memorial. Most women portrayed in public art are imagined vessels for the values of men. Both sculptures are by white men. People of colour are absent.

Figure 4. Wanda Zyborska (2013) HM Stanley statue covered with Funeral Condom, Denbigh. Charles Harwell (1923) Winged Peace in background


The statue of H M Stanley was controversial from the point of its local authority approval in 2011, which was made in the face of a well-publicised protest campaign. Stanley’s credentials to being a hero were in doubt within his own lifetime, never mind nine years ago. Stanley was a ruthless and militaristic explorer and an expert in self-publicity. He was also the agent of the notorious Belgian King Leopold I and was deeply implicit in turning the country into a barbarous and hugely profitable labour camp. Unfortunately, some in Denbigh were convinced by a well-researched book by revisionist historian Tim Jeal (biographer of Baden-Powell) and looked no further in their desire to celebrate this famous local boy, born in poverty and brought up in the workhouse, as an example of poor boy made good.

Figure 5. Black lives Matter protestors turn their backs on the statue of HM Stanley in Denbigh (June 2020). Photograph Alexandra Derwen


Since the killing of George Floyd in June this year, the campaign to remove the Confederate statues has reignited, along with movements in the UK and elsewhere to review the choice of memorials. The fate of the Stanley sculpture is now being put into the hands of Denbigh town’s inhabitants, who will have the chance to vote on the matter, following town councillors one-vote majority decision in late June against its immediate removal. In the midst of these narratives of opposition are some positive interventions, such as Mark Quin’s statue of BLM protester Jen Reid in Bristol. In Denmark, a substantial statue of a black woman, Mary Thomas, who led an uprising of plantation workers in the Caribbean has been erected. Created by (black women) artists, Jeannette Ehlers and La Vaughn Belle, it represents a powerful leader, rather than an abject victim.

Figure 6. Ehlers and Belle (2018) ‘I am Queen Mary’ inauguration outside the Danish West Indian warehouse in Copenhagen. Photograph Rikke Jørgensen


‘I Am Queen Mary’ (pictured) demonstrates the use of monumentality as a strategy for combatting erasure, an aesthetic approach that uses the ‘possibilities of composition to shape our consciousness of form in ways that relate to subject construction’. The monumental quality comes partly from the large scale and partly from the composition and poses of the models, referencing classical figures as well as a photograph of Black Panther leader Huey P Newton, on a round-backed outsized wicker chair. What destabilizes the monumental quality and gives it its contingent or potential aspect is the fact that this is an impoverished black woman holding the tools of her labour as if they are a sceptre and a ceremonial weapon, wearing rags with ‘imperial’ pride and confidence. The collaborative sculpture by Ehlers (Danish) and Belle (Virgin Islands) uses the scale, symbolism and dignitas of monumental form to challenge Denmark’s role in slavery and its commemoration of a colonial past. Instead it celebrates a leader of those who fought against it.

Across the western world, statues to slave owners and despots from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries look like they were made at the same time, but have actually been erected in the last fifty or sixty years. Why are they always in a style that is at least a hundred years old? Does this recycling of an antiquated style aim to hide them in the past to avoid interrogation, or are the people who commissioned them nostalgic for a wealthy past that allowed such atrocities? Or repurposing regressive figures from the past, for an imagined future, as F Williams has recently argued?

A proposed option for the Stanley statue is movement to a museum with contextual interpretation. In this case, my contemporaneous condom should go with it, for the full story of this ill-thought out monument to be told. If not, the visual power of the whitewash continues unchallenged. Ongoing colonial, white, male norms, still endemic and maintained by our public sculptures, are evidenced by the lack of representation of women.

Gillian Wearing’s (2018) portrait statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett is the first memorial of a woman to be placed in Parliament Square. It is also the first sculpture in Parliament Square by a woman sculptor. In March 2019, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst by Hazel Reeves (2018) was unveiled in Manchester’s StPeter’s Square to mark International Women’s Day and one hundred years of women having had the vote. It was the first statue of a Pankhurst in her home town of Manchester, one of the astonishingly few statues of women to be erected in Manchester, most of the few being of Queen Victoria.

At Buzzcut performance festival in Glasgow in 2017, the feminist performance collective XSexcentenary looked more closely at this absence, and examined the statue of Sir William Pearce, a womanising shipbuilding magnate. It had been erected by his wife, a philanthropist who set up the Pearce Institute in 1906 as a gift to the people of Govan. Lady Pearce was a pioneer of the Fresh Air Fortnight Scheme, which sent hundreds of sick children to convalesce at the coast or in the countryside, among other charitable works. Yet the engraving that I myself and fellow artists are holding in front of our faces (pictured below) beneath her husband’s memorial, was the only image we could find of her.

Figure 8 Wanda XSexcentenary 2018. ‘Not Dead Yet’ Defiling the Memorial to Charles Tennant. Glasgow International Festival 2018. Photograph: Duncan McClaren.


Even in graveyards where death, the great leveller, holds sway, the balance of representation is skewed. The Victorian Necropolis in Glasgow is full of impressive memorials to white, male, industrialists and celebrities. XSexcentenary performed a series of occupations of the Necropolis with a mixture of symbolic desecration of the memorials to men and the creation of virtual memorials to neglected Victorian women such as the authors Margaret Oliphant and Mary Brunton, which we ‘placed’ on blank cartouches on the back and sides of a memorial to a man. We made an iconoclastic parody of the memorial to Charles Tennant (pictured below), whose factory at St Rollox in the city polluted the valley next to the Necropolis and filled the neighbouring hospital with sick and dying workers from the chemicals in his bleaching processes. We aped the ‘manspreading’ posture of his statue and performed a masquerade of the pollution of his factory by puffing lavender talcum powder into the air around us, together with a recitation of the history of pollution and abuse of workers at his factory.

Wanda_XSexcentenary 2018. Not Dead Yet - Defiling the Memorial to Charles Tennant. Glasgow International Festival 2018, photograph Pearce
Figure 8. Wanda_XSexcentenary 2018. Not Dead Yet – Defiling the Memorial to Charles Tennant. Glasgow International Festival 2018. Photograph: Duncan McClaren.


On an eight hour walk through Llandudno, looking for memorials to the underrepresented with artist Lindsey Colbourne, we identified a practice I named spontaneous memorialising. On the hill below the observatory, there is a field of stones arranged by the people of Llandudno and called The Hill of Names.

Figure 9. The Hill of Names, Llandudno. ‘O Fa’ma i Fa’ma Henebion yn Llandudno / People’s Map of Llandudno Memorials’, 2017. Photograph Lindsey Colbourne


It seems to me that what has become the macho, overblown and over-reaching practice of memorialisation, had its origins in such an unassuming need to name and simply leave a message, over time saying ‘I was here’, commemorating a loved one or something of personal importance. The urge seems to have become exploited, appropriated and corrupted by power and politics to hold and send many different kinds of meaning and messages to tell the people who are looking at them, about who put them up, and about who they represent. And often to assert existing power and power structures. People are now expressing a need for a different kind of memorial to shape our collective consciousness. Public art must catch up with what is happening in galleries and out in public spaces: the celebration of the everyday, of equality and simple human kindness. We need images of the best in humanity, not the most exploitative, richest and most powerful people.

If people want to keep shameful colonial and patriarchal monuments as part of the collective memory of our complex and guilt-ridden past, we might gather them together, not in scrapyards (like those of Stalin in Russia or Saddam Hussein in Iraq), but in parks or even zoos. Slave owners could be held in cages like the Congo village women, raped by King Leopold’s men, whose husbands were obliged to collect enough rubber to allow their wives to be freed. Or thrown in shallow lakes where they could be seen gleaming below the water like the corpses of the fallen.

The virtue of retention is that it might feed the urgent contemporary debates that have been sparked. These arguments must remain alive as we decide what kind of country we want to live in. Might it be one that is shaped by the kind of past we want to remember? It is the role of artists to give imaginative form to who we all are, drawing on the histories all people. Not just those who could afford to shout their story loudest.



Claudia-Florentina Dobre, Pasts into Present: Ideology, Memory and Monuments in Communist and Post-Communist Romania (Sensus Historiae, XXIV {3}, 2016)
Germain Bazin, A Concise History of Art Part 1: From the Beginnings to the Fifteenth Century (Thames and Hudson, 1964).
Tim Jeal, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer (Yale, 2007)
Anca Christofovici, Touching Surfaces: Photographic Aesthetics, Temporality, Ageing (Rodopi, 2009)
Frances Williams, ‘From Poorhouse to Powerhouse; Denbigh’s Stanley Statue’ (Wales Arts Review, July 2020)
Terry Wyke and Harry Cocks, Public Sculpture of Greater Manchester: Public Sculpture of Britain, Volume Eight (Liverpool University Press, 2004)


XSexcentenary was a feminist collective that combatted the erasure of post-menopausal women in western culture and celebrated the ‘crone’. Members were Katharine Araniello, Kate Clayton, Norma D Hunter, Sarah Kent and Wanda Zyborska.

Margaret Oliphant (1828–97) was a prolific writer of hundreds of short stories, essays, articles and serialised novels such as Katie Stewart (1853). She also wrote critical works such as A Literary History of Scotland (1882) and travel writing. Mary Brunton (1778–1818) was a novelist, author of Self-Control (1811) and Discipline(1814).

The idea of zoos instead of parks of shame was suggested by Frances Williams and Sarah Pagoda.



Dr Wanda Zyborska is Lecturer in Fine Art at Bangor University. As an artist, she works in a wide variety of media, often found, mainly in 3D and drawing on textile methods. Her themes include the body and identity in relation to the politics of place, and gender. She was born in Ireland and has an Irish mother and a Polish father Wanda moved to Australia when she was five and grew up there, and after a time in France and England, has lived in Wales for over thirty years. She is a Welsh speaker.