Moad Musbahi

In the summer of 2020 a petition circulated by the far-right group ‘Britain First’, requested signatures in support of the removal of the statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square. It was widely shared by people like Kim Kendall, a senior lawyer for the U.K. government’s Crown Prosecution Service. The letter situated the request on the premise set up by the Black Lives Matter protests, who over the summer of 2020 had called for the removal of statues of controversial historical figures who were complicit in practices of slavery and racial subjugation. It took to recognise the power projected by monumental figures of history through their figuration within the public space of the city. Seeking to cast Mandela’s bronze cast to the ground, the petition argued that such an act was necessary for him to be, ‘torn down and cast into the dustbin of history’, due to his being ‘a communist and terrorist mass murderer’.1 i


The statue was first proposed to be placed on a new pedestal in central London’s Trafalgar Square. Pledging his support for the statue, the Mayor of London at the time, Ken Livingstone remarked: ’It will be a square of two Nelsons. The man up there [Admiral Nelson], his battle of Trafalgar was the defining battle that paved the way for 100 years of British empire, and Nelson Mandela looking down on this square will symbolise the peaceful transition to a world without empires.’2


Trafalgar Square has an extensive history as a popular central urban esplanade within the capital, acting as the focal point of many protests, rallies, and political gatherings; thus it seemed the most suitable location. The local authority, Westminster City Council, objected to the original placement of the statue, with the right-wing UK Independence Party’s London Assembly member Peter Hulme-Cross, questioning Mayor Livingstone during the appeal process, ‘doesn't the Mayor think one Nelson on a plinth in Trafalgar Square is enough?’

The conclusion to reject its placement, supported by English Heritage, the National Gallery and the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, was ultimately decided on the basis of not impeding circulation or disrupting the symmetry of the square. These two reasons were also given by Charles Barry in 1840, the architect responsible for the original design, in opposition to the erection of Nelson’s Column (the British Admiral who led the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805) within the centre of his scheme which was executed without his final agreement.


The monumental acts of removal following the protests of 2020 were not simply ways of materially articulating a claim for the city, but also acts of refusal to the imperial duress that continue to operate within the regime the statues uphold. They are not about the erasure of a history, but the first step to the necessary condition of unlearning its foundational violence and violation. The architectural privilege afforded to those who can make decisions of erecting such edifices is one that exposes invisible hierarchies, for the ability to alter one’s public space is a luxury denied to many of those that inhabit it. This distinction is registered by the uneven temporal sedimentations that imperial formations leave in their wake. Their presence is physical, yet their power is pronounced in their ability to contour and carve through the psychic space of the city. Or in the words of Frantz Fanon, they are ‘a form of power that slashes a scar across a social fabric that differentially affects us all’.3


In the 1960s, the north London home of Tambo became a central node from which the anti-apartheid struggle was articulated. This is where Mandela came to visit on his trip in 1962. The architecture of that abode, and its programme became a method from which to organise and stand firmly in opposition to the racial regimes of imperialism that South African white supremacy was empowered by. Within the domesticity of its arrangement and hospitality of its character, it became a relational and durational monument to those that it brought together and utilised it. Without this upkeep and political maintenance, it returned to being a typical terrace house like the many found within the north London suburb of Haringey.


Monuments, memorials, gravestones, and statues serve to orientate experience within the city and provide signs to navigate the pasts that have created them. Yet they are also the legacy of Empire, the continual force of Imperialism, as its lasting trace. These artefacts in their remainder become a different sort of debris. A debris left behind by a seemingly ‘bygone’ time of racial, extractive, and oppressive regimes. A debris of failed state power. This ‘debris’ understood as objects of a disputed heritage become the physical sites and focus for struggle and contestation. 2020 was inaugurated by the destruction of these monuments. The year was scarred in the debris left in the wake of this deafening fall, as an attempt to lay bare the processes of dispossession and expropriation hidden within the contemporary reality these statues were once placed to cement.


There was a marked distinction between the statues produced of mythic figures within the Ancient Greek world and that of imperial figures of authority within Roman Antiquity. Notably in the latter, the proud presentation upon a pedestal stands for and constitutes sovereign power; even in the absence of their physical body. For within this Latin tradition, a regime, be it legal, spiritual, or political, could only emanate from a figure, and that figure must be locatable, visible, and recognisable, yet necessarily made of flesh. For the Ancient Romans, the statue as a civic structure was intimately tied to the statutory, the set of codes that govern civic space. Statutory law governs and conditions interactions and modifications in and to the built environment. Both words, statue and statutory are etymological kin and both mean that ‘which is made to stand or be firm’. This is an index to the material basis of Ancient Roman Law, and the laws that Eurasia more broadly has inherited.


Symmetry was not a concern in the final placement of the statue within Parliament Square, five years after the initial dispute arose. The 2.7 metre bronze sculpture sits on the southwesternmost point of the site, facing due east, directly at the oncoming traffic from Westminster Hall. The figure is wearing a florally marked jacket, with arms outstretched, with an expression that seems to plead with its audience. It shows Nelson Mandela in his latter years, after his release from prison, visibly marking the age upon his face through a carefully chiselled brow. His left arm has its fingers spread, while his right has them closed. A declamatory pose which the art of rhetorical delivery would refer to as ‘supplico’, a gesture declaring the orator is aiming to beg or beseech their audience, in this case, for perpetuity.


The series of protests that were hosted in Parliament Square typically differ in character from those at Trafalgar Square. ii The latter is usually the start or end point in a march or procession. Occupying this central circulation node of the capital, a form of disruptive congestion is employed to gain consciousness and advocacy for political movements utilising the space. In the former and smaller square, a series of important sit-ins, tents and camps were orchestrated. Here the disruption was designed not to impede the general public, but to unrelentingly provide a counterpoint to the workings of parliament and for the infrastructure of knowledge that is upheld in its due process. In notable examples from the protests against the Iraq war, in support of Palestine and others, libraries and formal services were set up to provide for those who were both inquisitive and participating. Here a way of being in the city was set up that had not been accounted for through any single figuration, but rather whose permanence is resolute in the psychic space that is carried within those involved. A social order that attempts to make space for the memorialisation and narration of that which cannot take concrete and bronze shape.


Nelson Mandela was arrested on his return back to South Africa on August 5 of 1962, his charges were levied based on most notably the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. This trip was made to visit Oliver Tambo, the president of the African Nationalist Congress, who had been there two years prior. It is referenced in the 2007 speech of August 29th, in which Mandela, standing in front of the newly erected statue of his likeness, recounts, ‘[we] had visited Westminster Abbey in 1962, and had hoped a statue of a black person would be erected here’.


The £400,000 construction of Mandela’s statue has a dark sheen, a bronze that combines copper to tin in a ratio of nine to one. Copper and tin are mined from sites predominantly in Chile for the former and Indonesia and China for the latter. The extraction and purification process are designed to produce a metal that can then be easily smelted. This in turn releases many different fumes and by-products.

The exact patina of the bronze alloy is determined by the composition of the two metals, and by its reaction to the elements in a process of oxidation. The archaic art of statuary would commonly combine and treat the final surface with various solutions, producing a rich palette of colours ranging from light bluish grey to a dark dusky red and even a yellowish-brown. At times these statues would also be gilded in gold leaf, be marked with an inlay of a different colour or be patinated with a sulphur solution to create a spectrum of tones. Currently, the Mandela statue is left without any further treatment after the casting process, true to its as it was designed by the sculptor Ian Walters.

The depiction of black figures, and their stature and role in Ancient Greek antiquity, was almost exclusively on ceramics. Visually, they were presented with a dark-coloured glaze, but occupied multiple positions between political allies to soldiers. Many references in Homeric epics speak of those with darker complexions as being a ‘semi-divine’ people whose country was a ‘relaxing oasis for the gods’.4 Here, what is visually given as ‘blackness’, and the character of such a figure and, what is visually given as ‘blackness’ their ‘blackness’, was only tenable within a narrative structure, across a vase or urn. Its visual cue was secondary to their subjective dimension in which they were cast.


Those that are ‘civilised’, who occupy the place of ‘civilisation’ in its legal instance, extends to those that are subject to the rule of civil law, and thus there is a need for a ‘barbaric’ break. These monumental objects become a way to petrify, and domesticate what they intend to symbolically declare. Black feminist scholarship sets out an imperative to identify not what these memorial objects and their signifying practice can be interpreted to mean but build a repository of examples and cues on what they can be deciphered to do. Taking Sylvia Wynter’s concept of a ‘deciphering practice’5 as that which moves beyond the act of observing or interpreting history, to topple in this way is another method to create an avenue to question, mobilise and disturb this shared past through collective action.

To utilise statues as a tool they must be deciphered, continuously through occupation, use and maintenance to begin to imagine a more equitable and emancipatory record that can be left behind for future generations to inherit. This takes on a demand to effect and be affected by the object, to engage with the framework and underlying structural logic of the memory that is memorialised by it, and thus constantly call out the racial subjugation that irreparably marks the European city.

Where the Mandela statue is an important monument to a black person, a monument to the opposition to racial regimes requires one to topple such a statue. Toppling creates space for those that have been consistently denied its luxury, it is an act to broaden and expand what is contained within the urban archive, as a way to question the codes that grant stately authority with the architectural right to erect signs demonstrating their prerogative power and space of belonging.

Themes: Counter-Scopic Regimes, Spatial Claims

Methods: Archive, Counter-Cartography


[1] Diane Taylor, ‘Senior CPS Lawyer Investigated for Posting Britain First Petition’, The Guardian, June 18, 2020. https:// www.theguardian.com/law/2020/jun/18/senior-cps

[2] ‘Mayor’s Pledge for Mandela Statue’, BBC News, April 27, 2004. http:// news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/london/3664987.stm.

[3] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 2008). Quoted in Ann Laura Stoler, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 8.

[4] Iliad 1.423, Odyssey 1.22–23.

[5] Sylvia Wynter, ‘Re-Thinking “Aesthetics”: Notes Towards a Deciphering Practice’, in Ex-iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema, ed. Mbye Cham (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1992), 245.


[ii] To read more about protest, mythical figures and revolutionary politics, see: INTERCOMMUNALISM AS ABOLITION: HUEY P NEWTON AND THE POLITICS OF BORDERS by Nivi Manchanda

Moad Musbahi is an artist and curator whose work investigates migration as a method for cultural production and political expression, focusing on the social practices and forms of knowledge that movement engenders. He is co-directing the year-long roaming programme Taught to Travel with the Harun Farocki Institut across Alexandria, Beirut, Berlin, Dakar and Tunis. He is a recipient of the Sharjah Art Foundation Production Programme grant (2020); the Goethe Institut’s Visual Arts Project Fund (2021); and the EU’s ‘All-Around Culture’ research grant (2022). His writing has featured in The White Review (2021), Kayfa-Ta (2020) and AA Files (2019), and has been presented at Projects Arts Centre, Dublin (2021), Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai (2020) and Beirut Art Center, Beirut (2019). Previously, he worked with the DLX Design Lab at the University of Tokyo; as a researcher at the Royal College of Art’s School of Architecture, London; and has been a recent resident at Singapore Art Museum, Singapore (2022).

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