Public art is public: visually, and physically accessible by anyone. In Edinburgh, public art cannot be avoided, there are a vast number of sculptures, murals, and installations. This raises the question: what should be displayed? Given that public art forms part of our daily experience, it is important to interrogate what is chosen to become a landmark within our visual environment.
The Queen’s funeral was shown on a temporary screen erected in the Meadows. While this display is perhaps not conventionally a public sculpture, it fits into a broad definition well. The screen was in a public space, for the general public to interact with and view creating a sense of community and shared spectacle. This example highlights the lack of autonomy that can arise from public displays: in many cases, they cannot be avoided. The local government decided that the Queen’s death was a public and universal interest.
This political use of public space echoes another ongoing debate: statues. Many historical figures are scattered around Edinburgh from; Robert Dundas on Melville Crescent, Thomas Guthrie, to John Wilson in Princes Street Gardens. Whilst public space is also used for contemporary art in parts of Edinburgh, such as the Antony Gormley figures along the Water of Leith, or Susan Collis’s ‘The Next Big Thing…is a Series of Little Things’ in Bristo Square, it is not what stands out when traversing the city. Instead, it is the many old memorials and statues that lure tourists to this iconic old city. Their sheer size and central location make them such an important feature of the Edinburgh landscape whilst contemporary art seems to be hidden away.
This becomes all the more sinister when you consider that Edinburgh’s history is far less pretty than these magnificent statues make it seem. A specific example of this would be the controversial Melville Monument in St Andrew’s Square which was built to commemorate the political figure Henry Dundas. Dundas, a supporter of empire, was instrumental in delaying the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and was involved in the British policy of purchasing enslaved people to serve the army. Following Black Lives Matter protests, in 2021 a plaque was placed by the monument to explain Dundas’ controversial legacy stating that Dundas “defended and expanded the British empire, imposing colonial rule on indigenous people.” The plaque dedicated the monument to: “the memory of the more than half-a-million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions.”
However, a plaque simply isn’t enough. It seems pretty ineffectual to have a small plaque that almost no one will read next to a ginormous overbearing monument. Compare this 45 meter statue in the heart of Edinburgh to the graffiti mural of abolitionist Frederick Douglas by the Union Canal. Visually, plaque or not, the Melville Monument commemorates Edinburgh’s colonial past. These statues were built for the purpose of immortalizing and celebrating powerful men and a plaque does not change that image. Dundas continues to tower over New Town, a part of the city that was built on the back of slavery. As people walk past Dundas going about their daily lives they won’t think of Edinburgh’s complicity in slavery. Instead, they will continue to admire the historic aesthetic that remains one of Edinburgh’s defining and celebrated features.
Incorporating art into public space would be a far better means to really honor the memory of those affected by colonialism. We could replace statues with art, or topple them in protest as was the case with Edward Colston in Bristol. Another way is to create art which can act in conversation with these colonial statues, for example, in the case of Samson Kambalu’s sculpture as the next fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. This will depict John Chilembwe who led an anti-colonial plantation uprising and will feature alongside Nelson’s Column. A further possibility could be to ‘vandalize’ these public statues. Artist Hew Locke demonstrates this in his series ‘Patriots’ in which he takes photographs of controversial public sculptures and embellishes them with golden clothing which upon closer inspection contains images of slaves, gold, and red beads, like blood, hanging off the figures.
In Edinburgh, contemporary artists could transform Dundas’s statue into a public artwork that truly demonstrates his controversial legacy. In doing this, it would bring to the surface an ugly truth that the city needs to face. Ultimately, art can, and should, be used to address colonial histories and where better to do this than in our public spaces.