Painting Over the Cracks in Our History

Nathan Clarke discusses the art of protest. 

Revolutionaries were once descried as the “graffiti artists” of history but, in the midst of a national discussion on the commemoration of British historical figures, it has been the graffiti artists themselves who have become the revolutionaries. They are transforming not only our urban landscape, but the ways in which we conceptualise history.

An example is British artist Gabriel Pitcher who completed his latest work, a mural in East London of local youth worker Steve Barnabis, in July 2020 in the midst of continuing Black Lives Matter protests. According to Pitcher the mural flips the traditional vision of patronage portraiture to “champion local people working at grass roots to empower their communities”.

Pitcher’s work is part of a wave of politically inspired art that has grown in recent months: the numerous murals, and other visual demonstrations of support for the NHS, being further examples. He hopes his work will continue “the recent and urgent critique of the monuments characterising our public spaces”, drawing attention to the current national debate on the representation of the nation’s history.

History is always contested and those who control it get the truths that they want. How the past becomes history involves a process of decision making; a process which has long been dominated by powerful elites who have the hegemonic power to enforce their own version of history as the one “true” narrative.

Their selective approach to history creates the false impression that all that is great about Britain is the achievement of a select few “great” white men who are to be immortalised in the form of statues. Think Edward Colston, Cecil Rhodes and some of the more questionable policies of Winston Churchill.

In the eyes of Stuart Hall, people come to know the meaning of a nation “through the objects and artefacts which symbolise its essential values”. Thus, the promotion of such a narrative is a kind of state building exercise, nurturing a form of conservative nationalism. Only now, thanks to the BLM movement, the tireless work of a host of black scholars and artists such as Pitcher are we beginning to ask ourselves exactly whose version of history we are talking about.

Rethinking which historical figures are celebrated in Britain does not constitute an erasure of history; the irony is that these very monuments are themselves an erasure of history, promoting a white-washed narrative of historical development and a refusal to engage with the difficult legacies of our imperial past.

Historian Raphael Samuel argues that if we are to move beyond such a one-dimensional model of history, we must recast history as a social discipline, a shared history; “the work of a thousand different hands”. As a form of creative activism, it is indicative of wider democratisation over the stories and people which are chosen to define a certain community.

History is no longer the prerogative of a privileged few and murals of this kind stand in opposition to the racialised forms of knowledge production prevalent in this country. They seek to re-dress the white-washed history curriculum and a lack of ethnic representation in academic circles with fewer than one in 100 history professors working in the UK today being from black backgrounds.

Communities have, instead, taken matters into their own hands and sought to engineer a new kind of participative history at a local level. This is what anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot described as “histories that no history book can tell us”, ones which are not found in classrooms or museums, but in the very social fabric of our societies.

As the statue of Edward Colston was toppled from its plinth, a debate is taking place over who, or what, is going to replace it. As inspiring as it was to see him replaced by a sculpture of BLM protester Jen Reid; perhaps now it the time to move away from seeing history as merely the celebration of a select few, powerful individuals but more a social discipline in which community-inspired art and culture are given equal prominence.

History is meant to guide us but has for too long alienated many. This colourful revolution is a new history written from the bottom up, not imposed from the top down. A community-driven form of storytelling, communicating the worldview of a social group whose voices are slowly beginning to be heard.

Nathan Clarke is an aspiring journalist from East London. He recently graduated with a First in History from the University of Birmingham and intends to go study a MA in Journalism. He writes about politics, social affairs and history and have experience in blogging and student journalism. 

He tweets at @nathanc1999

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