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Who is Jen Reid? The Black Lives Matter activist whose statue replaced Edward Colston’s in Bristol

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Kayleigh Dray
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Black Lives Matter protestor Jen Reid poses for a photograph in front of a sculpture of herself, by local artist Marc Quinn, on the plinth where the Edward Colston statue used to stand on July 15, 2020 in Bristol, England. A statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into Bristol Harbour during Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of an African American man, George Floyd, while in the custody of Minneapolis police in the United States of America. The Mayor of Bristol has since announced the setting up of a commission of historians and academics to reassess Bristol's landmarks and buildings that feature the name of Colston and others who made fortunes in trades linked to slavery. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Bristol City Council removed the Black Lives Matter activist’s statue less than 24 hours after its erection. There has been a mixed response on social media since then, with some calling out the council for its removal, and some calling out the artist for his involvement in creating the statue. Here, Stylist turns the spotlight on Jen Reid, the activist who inspired A Surge of Power.

Earlier this week, a statue of Jen Reid was erected on the plinth where slave trader Edward Colston‘s once stood in Bristol.

The Black Lives Matter activist’s statue, however, was removed by Bristol City Council officials 24 hours later, prompting outcry on social media.

Who is Jen Reid?

Last month, protestors toppled Edward Colston’s statue from its plinth in Bristol city centre.

The bronze statue had stood on Colston Avenue since 1895, ostensibly as a memorial to its subject’s philanthropic works. However, Colston famously made his fortune through the Royal African Company (RAC) – which is believed to have sold about 100,000 west African people into slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas between 1672 and 1689. 

For years, Bristol citizens have campaigned for the statue to be removed.

“Whilst history shouldn’t be forgotten, these people who benefited from the enslavement of individuals do not deserve the honour of a statue. This should be reserved for those who bring about positive change and who fight for peace, equality and social unity,” they said via a petition.

“Edward Colston… does not represent our diverse and multicultural city.”

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Their calls for change, though, went unheeded by Bristol City Council. And so, as part of the protests taking place across the world in the wake of George Floyd’s death, activists felt inspired to take matters into their own hands.

Together, they used ropes to drag Colston’s statue to the harbourside, where it was thrown in the water at Pero’s Bridge – named in honour of enslaved man Pero Jones who lived and died in the city.

And, shortly after Colston had fallen, activist Jen Reid climbed onto the plinth and raised her fist in a Black Power salute.

“On my way home from the protests on 7 June, I felt an overwhelming impulse to climb onto the plinth, just completely driven to do it by the events which had taken place right before,” Reid said in a statement. 

Reid continued: “Seeing the statue of Edward Colston being thrown into the river felt like a truly historical moment; huge.

“When I was stood there on the plinth, and raised my arm in a Black Power salute, it was totally spontaneous, I didn’t even think about it. It was like an electrical charge of power was running through me. My immediate thoughts were for the enslaved people who died at the hands of Colston and to give them power. I wanted to give George Floyd power, I wanted to give power to Black people like me who have suffered injustices and inequality. A surge of power out to them all.”

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It was a striking moment, which Reid’s husband captured in a photograph. And, unsurprisingly, the ensuing Instagram post went viral.

When the image came up in the feed of artist Marc Quinn, though, he felt prompted to approach the couple over social media with an idea for a new sculpture.

“I was in his studio by the Friday after the protest with 201 cameras surrounding me, taking pictures of me from every conceivable angle,” Reid told BBC News.

“That went into a 3D print and a mould was made.”

Together, Reid and Quinn created a lifesize, black resin statue – named A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020 – and erected it early on Wednesday 15 July in Bristol city centre.

“Creating this sculpture is so important as it helps keep the journey towards racial justice and equity moving, because Black lives matter every day,” said Reid in a statement.

“This sculpture is about making a stand for my mother, for my daughter, for Black people like me. It’s about Black children seeing it up there. It’s something to feel proud of, to have a sense of belonging, because we actually do belong here and we’re not going anywhere.”

The statue stood upon Colston’s empty plinth for less than 24 hours before it was removed by city officials, prompting outcry on social media.

“I really hope you put the Jen Reid statue back,” tweeted one. “It’s such a powerful statement. How can we say #BLM and then take this down!? Poor decision. This was progression.”

Another shared: “I’m disappointed in Bristol Council. I understand that they didn’t ask for the statue of Jen Reid to be placed but to tear down such a statement in the support of progress in less than 24 hours is beyond ridiculous.”

And still one more said: “Imagine acting as quick as 24 hours to remove a statue of a Black protestor but never acting to take down a slave trader statue.”

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The statue has received a mixed response. Speaking via his Instagram Stories, multimedia artist Larry Achiampong said: “The situation with the Marc Quinn statue is a sad joke – one that is not funny. The point of all of this [protest] is the redistribution of equity, of power… but who’s being given the opportunity? Who’s being given the chance?

“Even if it was all from Marc Quinn’s own money that still doesn’t matter. Why not support some young Black artists, [encourage them] to make something, to put something up there. Give them time, give them space?”

A sign saying “Marc Quinn loves money, not blacks,” sits on the artist’s statue of Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid on the plinth where the Edward Colston statue used to stand
A sign saying “Marc Quinn loves money, not blacks,” sits on the artist’s statue of Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid on the plinth where the Edward Colston statue used to stand.

Achiampong added: “Sometimes the best thing you can do when you’re part of a problem is stop. Stop. Take your hands away…

“Maybe then there will be some space for you to think about what can be done, and what can be made better.”

Retweeting Achiampong’s video into her Twitter feed, Dr Hannah Robbins – assistant professor in popular music at the University of Nottingham – added: “I’ve not shared the picture of the statue. Not because I’m not proud of that amazing woman (love and solidarity to her), but exactly because of who made it.”

In a statement released on his website, Quinn explains his reasoning behind erecting the statue in Bristol.

“Jen and I are not putting this sculpture on the plinth as a permanent solution to what should be there,” he said.

“It’s a spark which we hope will help to bring continued attention to this vital and pressing issue. We want to keep highlighting the unacceptable problem of institutionalised and systemic racism that everyone has a duty to face up to.

“This sculpture had to happen in the public realm now: this is not a new issue, but it feels like there’s been a global tipping point. It’s time for direct action now.”

Meanwhile, the Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees has said the future of the plinth “must be decided by the people of Bristol”.

“This will be critical to building a city that is home to those who are elated at the statue being pulled down,” he added. “Those who sympathise with its removal but are dismayed at how it happened and those who feel that in its removal, they’ve lost a piece of the Bristol they know and therefore themselves.”

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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