DISCUSS: Decolonising Sculpture for Urban Social Justice

Debates are intensifying about how to address, or redress, racial and ethnic inequality in cities and dismantle an urban colonial legacy that remains evident in public art, including monumental sculptures that form a predominant feature of the City of Leeds. DISCUSS is a critical interdisciplinary project in a new partnership with Leeds City Council. It will examine the relationship between primarily monumental sculptures as part of the urban environment and racial injustice within specific empirical contexts of Leeds.

This project is funded through an ESRC WRDTP Collaborative Award to Dr Martin Zebracki in the School of Geography. DISCUSS falls in the remit of the WRDTP Cities, Environment and Liveability (CEL) Pathway and its focus on urban liveability and inequalities/injustices as faced by socially marginalised communities. This project is highly interdisciplinary, drawing on urban social justice theories and critical research methodologies across geography, sociology, urban planning, architecture, history, and cognate disciplines. The project will provide the opportunity for a PhD student to benefit from the supervisors’ interdisciplinary expertise, institutional and WRDTP training in cutting-edge research methods, and the support and resources of the project partner, Leeds City Council.

DISCUSS critically builds on a recently commissioned independent review of public statues in the City of Leeds, carried out in direct response to Black Lives Matter (BLM) anti-racist and police brutality protests, following the police’s killing of George Floyd in May 2020. This inaugural city-wide statue review was conducted under the leadership of Leeds’ first Black Councillor, Honorary Alderwoman Alison Lowe, supported by an expert reference group including established academics, public historians, and the Civic Trust, in June–Aug 2020. The timing of this review notably coincided with the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and the graffiti-spraying of the words, such as ‘slave owner’, ‘colonise,’ and ‘murderer,’ on the Queen Victoria statue in Woodhouse Moor in Leeds in June 2020.

Through its partnership with Leeds City Council, DISCUSS will advance knowledge of urban social justice through social scientific investigation into the extent to which Leeds-based public-art policies and practices allow scope for inclusive provision and racial and ethnic diversity specifically. This project will draw from an empirically novel mixed-methods study involving archival and policy analysis and ethnographic research comprising observations, participatory action research, and in-depth interviews. As such, DISCUSS will critically integrate the perspectives of key city actors and organisations, racial justice activists, and public communities, especially people of colour.

Dr Martin Zebracki, the project’s primary supervisor commented:

“DISCUSS is a pivotal concerted research project. In a new partnership with Leeds City Council, this project provides a timely and strategic imperative to pursue state-of-the-art methodologies for scrutinising Leeds’ policies and institutional practices in light of wider academic, social policy, and activist and ‘artivist’ concerns with decolonising public art. DISCUSS is closely aligned with the City’s commitment to enhancing an intercultural sense of belonging and diverse public realm, wherein all residents, visitors, and any other city users can feel welcome, represented, and involved. DISCUSS will lend a unique opportunity to the prospective doctoral student for accessing key resources and research participants to maximise research impact on social inclusion and urban racial justice in particular.”

More information on the project and how to apply for the Collaborative Award is available here