James Thompson and Samra Mayanja performing 'Recording Performance II — Memorial to Queen Victoria statue' in Leeds, 2019.

Commemorative Space:
Artist reflections on monumentality in Leeds

James Thompson (performed with Samra Mayanja), 'Recording Performance II — Memorial to Queen Victoria statue', Leeds, 2019

Commemorative Space explores what monumentality means to artists living in cities today. Edited by Rebecca Senior, designed by Ashleigh Armitage and featuring commissioned works by Leeds-based artists Emii Alrai, Simeon Barclay, Samra Mayanja, Jill McKnight and James Thompson, it foregrounds artistic practice as a powerful mechanism for engaging with the complexities of monumentality in commemorative landscapes.

Click on the cover image to view the full pdf publication.

The cover of a book, edited by Rebecca Senior. The title is Commemorative Space: Artist Reflections on Monumentality in Leeds. The cover is bright yellow with brown text, and a sepia photograph of a green space with trees.

Foreword – Rebecca Senior

In 2020, Leeds City Council was one of over a hundred local authorities to announce a city-wide review of its statues and monuments. This energetic inquiry into the UK’s commemorative landscape was a response to the protests and direct action that had resulted in the removal, destruction and reinterpretation of historical monuments to imperialists and white supremacists across the world. The Leeds review aimed to interrogate and understand how communities engage with physical representations of people in the public realm. This renewed critical engagement with monuments as sites of culture-making emphasised their power as reflections of biased and racist attitudes and ideologies, the legacies of which persist today.

Monumentality – as a concept and as a quality – is formed according to personal vantage, social and geographical place and historical moment. The idea of what constitutes a monument has never been fixed. What is clear is that the common perception of the monument as a permanent, immovable object is over. The material hierarchy of traditional monument construction, such as bronze, granite and stone, has been interrupted by ephemeral creative interventions including graffiti, placards and posters.

This publication was formed against the backdrop of the Leeds 2020 review, and a desire to share the myriad ways that contemporary artists in the city engage with the idea of monumentality now. The artists in this publication – Emii Alrai, Simeon Barclay, Samra Mayanja, Jill McKnight and James Thompson – are all currently based in Leeds and were invited to produce a 300-word response to the idea of monumentality in relation to the city. The resultant works address complex and interwoven issues of identity fabrication, destruction and manipulation, and speak of the significance of location, displacement, ghosts and memory to the artists’ relationships with the buildings and spaces of Leeds. This publication does not offer any clear answers as to what monumentality is, but reveals some of the many entanglements and nuances that shape artistic approaches to monumentality in the city today.

An image of Jill McKnight's maquette for sculpture titled 'The Artist'.

Jill McKnight, Maquette for ‘The Artist’.

Excerpt – Jill McKnight

Monumentality seems at odds with the artistic practices of me and many of my peers working in Leeds. Our community is changeable and precarious. The city attracts hundreds of art students each year and in my six years here I have made many friends from these courses, while gathering at exhibition openings and talks. We work where we can and with what we can get, often using cheap materials, if making non-digital work at all. Even the studio spaces where we work are fleeting, as tenancies change hands against Leeds’ ever shifting landscape. There is something exciting in our adaptability, in this flux. We come from a longstanding trove of artists making exciting work in the city without a permanent legacy, but (if we’re lucky) are archived away to be found by those who care to look.

The monuments around the city look down on the artists. Monuments made by Victorian sculptors born and working in London. They were erected as a permanent and (literally) elevated tribute to powerful figures, to be admired and respected by ordinary people of their time and for future generations. In the rush of my everyday life they had been so commonplace as to blend into the background, never attracting my gaze upwards beyond their stone plinths. Now, in dialogue with the graffiti articulating the colonial oppression they perpetuate, they are reframed. It is staggering to stand before tangible images of figures like Queen Victoria and Robert Peel knowing my own ancestors, like the majority, were too poor to have left behind ego-documents1 or physical evidence of any kind.

I fantasise about us making new artworks from the bronze and stone of the monuments that speak to our communities and times, then of future generations reusing this material, over and over, towards an ever-evolving discursive and reflective space.

James Thompson and Samra Mayanja performing 'Recording Performance II — Memorial to Queen Victoria statue' in Leeds, 2019.

James Thompson (performed with Samra Mayanja), ‘Recording Performance II — Memorial to Queen Victoria statue’, Leeds, 2019

Excerpt – James Thompson

Day 3 of 3:
Final attempt – Victoria, Friday 29th March 2019, 09:18am

Out of place, out of time. The statue seems to protrude through the ground from a surface below like the pinnacle of a subterranean skyscraper. A question to what hides beneath.

I walk from the camera across tarmac and grass. As I step onto the elevated sandstone footing, surrounding Victoria, to begin piling slabs of clay in the far corner, I feel moved into a sort of parallel space separated from the park. Under the weight of the statue as though walking into a theatrical freeze frame, time seems slowed. I become aware of my movements, the park, the camera but at the same time distanced from it. On this island invisibility drops, passers-by accustomed to spectacle in that part of the park overt their gaze on the way to somewhere. Actions normalised.

This close, I trace the perimeter of the statue; India, Australia, Canada, Africa. My fingertips stained by the thin layer of Victoria, dissolved by acid rain onto the Portland stone plinth.

The closest I get to touching the figure itself.

In the space behind the owls’ wings that mark each corner, a family of ladybirds hibernate in the micro-climate of bronze radiated by the early spring sun.

Samra and I discuss ways to approach the statue in the camera blind spot behind the back of Victoria. We propose to move in sequence, to collect a slab of clay, to pick our spot, to use any means to push the hardening clay as far as we could reach onto the statue.


We emerge from Victoria’s blind spot, collect a slab of clay and aim for the only part of a figure in human reach, the left toe of Peace. At first the leather hard clay resists, rejecting its proposed new form. We keep working the material until it softens. Unmoving, the statue responds with a low growl that seems to resonate from deep within the hollow bronze. A call to Marsden, Peel, Wellington perhaps.

No action.

Commemorative Space was supported by SPF-QR funding awarded to the University of Nottingham by Research England.

Jill McKnight (b. 1990, Sunderland) is an artist based in Leeds who works with sculpture and writing.

James Thompson is a Leeds based artist who works across sculpture, moving image and performance.

Rebecca Senior is an art historian and Henry Moore Foundation postdoctoral fellow based in Leeds.

Published 01.04.2021 by Lara Eggleton in Explorations

1,146 words