David Oluwale blue plaque theft was sickening but how Leeds responded is what counts - Dr Emily Zobel Marshall

The theft of the blue plaque for David Oulwale was horrific but the city has shown is will not allow his story to be silenced, writes Dr Emily Zobel Marshall.

By Dr Emily Zobel Marshall
Tuesday, 5th July 2022, 11:45 am

The Story of David Oluwale is a Leeds story. It tells a tale from our city.

In recent months we’ve seen the beautiful new Oluwale footbridge open, spanning the River Aire near the point where David was last seen running from two Leeds police officers, and the unveiling of a blue plaque in David’s name on Leeds Bridge.

Read More

Read More
Crowdfunder set up to replace stolen David Oluwale blue plaque
Prof Caryl Phillips at the unveiling of the David Oluwale blue plaque. Picture: James Hardisty.

Both of these are lasting reminders of a man who came to Leeds for a better life but was brutally persecuted. Both are physical reminders to all of us to step up and do better.

In the hours following the blue plaque being unveiled, it was stolen. We were horrified. Was this how people in Leeds really felt about trying to commemorate and honour a past, a life and history that many would rather forget?

Then, in the hours and days that followed, there was the most heartening outpouring of support we could imagine.

The image of the plaque was shared on big screens and bus stops, social feeds and stickers, each and every one demonstrating that the city and its people refused to forget and silence David’s story.

Dr Emily Zobel Marshall is co-chair of the David Oluwale Memorial Association. Picture by Ashley Karrell

In the summer of 2020, we saw Black Lives Matter protests across the globe, sparked by the murder on May 25 of George Floyd, who, like David, was a Black man who died as a result of institutionalised racism in the police force.

That same year, cities across the UK reviewed their historic statues and memorials in a response to calls from anti-racism campaigners to make public artworks more relevant. I was part of that review in Leeds, and we agreed that the city had few public works of art that reflected our diversity of cultures and histories.

Just a few months later, in early 2021, Leeds 2023 announced its proposal to commission a new sculpture by the David Oluwale Memorial Association (DOMA), by international British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, which would honour David’s life.

This has been a dream and a plan for DOMA for many years and it now gave us the chance to be part of a significant year of cultural celebration.

This summer, DOMA representatives will be heading into Leeds’ communities with a model of the artwork to share plans for the project and we want to hear what local people think. After all, this is a sculpture for the people of Leeds – it tells the story of past traumas and the hope of a brighter, more egalitarian and socially just future.

Leeds 2023, alongside Leeds City Council and with unwavering support from Leeds Civic Trust, have given us the opportunity to bring about changes, to show that we have the strength and momentum to create and showcase a work of art that is profoundly meaningful, very exciting and extremely ambitious.

Shonibare’s sculpture will rise above the Leeds skyline and become a unique Leeds landmark. It will be installed, funding permitting, during Leeds 2023 and we want it to be a special peaceful, completive space with regular performance events to draw people together to think about David Oluwale and join campaigns for improving the city.

There’s no time to rest – we want a legacy for projects like Shonibare’s sculpture and for it to resonate across the city, creating balance and making a permanent change to the cityscape.

Leeds 2023 and our partners are looking to the future, hoping to make changes now to engage and inspire others for years to come.

• Dr Emily Zobel Marshall is co-chair of the David Oluwale Memorial Association, which is working with Leeds 2023 and Leeds City Council on a new commemorative sculpture and garden.