STORIES BEHIND: Engels in Manchester

I have been writing the series “Stories Behind”, which tells the stories behind statues on the streets, for a while. I have written stories behind animal statues (Tombili, El Gato y el El Caballo), statues for community leaders (Mary Barbour), statues that became symbols of cities (The Duke with a Cone). All of these stories have twists and turns, things you won’t expect to happen, things that are fascinating, interesting, hilarious, outrageous or plain ridiculous. But, the latest turn in the story behind the Engel statue in Manchester made me write its whole story.

Almost two weeks ago, we woke up to an unexpected invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. Although there were reports about this as a possibility, it sounded unreal, but happened. The war has been escalating since then by leaving thousands of refugees, death and atrocities behind.

Many try to help the people of Ukraine by sending humanitarian aid, opening their homes to refugees or demanding the countries imposing sanctions against Russia. Lots of solidarity in action in a very short period of time. The good face of humanity shows itself in the middle of this horrendous war.

Meanwhile, some seem confused about how to show their solidarity effectively with the people of Ukraine. This piece is not about showing the ways how to do it. It would be disrespectful to instruct such ways, as everyone tries to find one by themselves. But, one thing seems quite odd among all these ways that people try to show solidarity: the mainstream artworld’s response. The artworld is used to performative gestures and actions, and seems struggling to find ways for how to show true solidarity. For example, people questioned the actions such as taking down films from Russia from the Glasgow Film Festival programme (with a statement acknowledging this is nothing to the film-makers point of view).

Performative protests and acts of solidarity may be important in the society of the spectacle we live in. These may be effective as well to disrupt or stop violence. But, the criticism was that some of the performative acts that took place in the last weeks were remotely relevant to or helpful for supporting the people of Ukraine against the violence they have been facing.

The Mill broke the news about the Engels statue in Manchester amid these debates:

People were confused with the news with the questions in mind regarding the relevance of this. One Twitter user even explored Engel’s likely response to this:

HOME released a statement explaining their position as it’s not removing the statue, but explaining why and how it ended up in Manchester:

So, what was the story behind the Engels statue from Ukraine that ended up in Manchester? Why does the statement refer Phil Collins in all of these? What is the connection between Engels and Manchester?

Well, the story goes way back to the 1800s!

Engels lived and worked in Manchester during the years of industrial revolution. It was the time the working and living conditions in England were extremely exploitative and quite frankly horrid. Many know Engels through his impact on socialist thinking. Engels wrote quite a few important books including The Condition of Working Class in England in the late 1800s.

The Condition of the Working Class is the best-known work of Engels, and in many ways still the best study of the working class in Victorian England. It was also Engels’s first book, written during his stay in Manchester from 1842 to 1844. Manchester was then at the very heart of the Industrial Revolution and Engels compiled his study from his own observations and detailed contemporary reports. The fluency of his writing, the personal nature of his insights, and his talent for mordant satire combine to make this account of the life of the victims of early industrial change into a classic – a historical study that parallels and complements the fictional works of the time by such writers as Gaskell and Dickens. What Cobbett had done for agricultural poverty in his Rural Rides, Engels did – and more – in this work on the plight of the industrial workers in the England of the early 1840s.

Penguin Classics

This solely is an important contribution to the people’s history in Manchester, and makes Engels a prominent figure in the history of the city. A BBC Legacies piece explains in a nutshell life of Engels in Manchester as a thinker and involuntary business person as well as how living in Manchester shaped his thinking.

Engels was deeply influenced by his first stay in Manchester. The social and political struggles taking place impressed him. Manchester was a focal point of the Chartists movement, the developing trade unions and cooperative societies, as it was for the factory agitations such as the campaigns to end child labour and to introduce a ten-hour day. He noted how politically active and well read a great number of the Manchester working class were.

BBC Legacies

But, how come a Soviet-era statue of Engels from Ukraine arrived in Manchester?

That’s when HOME and Phil Collins take the stage. Phil Collins is an artist mostly known with his video art on various social issues. Some of his work explores the transformation after the fall of Easters block.

After the collapse of Soviet Union, the statues which were associated with the previous regime were removed from the cities. Some were disposed of, others were left around. Collins looked for a statue among those for two years, as part of the efforts to find a suitable Engels statue for Manchester, funded by the Manchester City Council. He found a suitable one in a village in Ukraine.

Finally one was discovered in the village of Mala Pereshchepina, in a district formerly named after Engels in the Poltava region of eastern Ukraine. It had been deposed from its central position in the village, cut in half at the waist, dumped in an agricultural compound and covered over with large raffia bags. It had the traces of pale-blue and yellow paint on its legs, the Ukrainian national colours.

Guardian

The journey of the statue from the village of Mala Pereshchepina to Manchester was filmed throughout. They even stopped in Barmen, Germany, where Engels was born. As the final stop of this journey, the statue was erected in Manchester at the Manchester International Festival in 2017.

The festival’s artistic director, John McGrath, said he expected the statue’s new location to “invite people to think and ignite debate.”

The New York Times

Collins explains why to bring an Engels statue to Manchester, which sums up the story behind the statue in Manchester:

“Manchester is a meeting point. It represents both the birth of capitalism and the factory system and the magic of capitalism, the magic of surplus value. But Manchester is also a site of resistance to that – of the Chartists and the 1842 general strike and the suffragettes and the Vegetarian Society,” he says. It’s this latter, radical side of the city that can’t be found, says Collins, among its memorials and statues and street names. The sculpture of Engels will subtly shift the balance.

Guardian

STORIES BEHIND: A Chubby Horse and a Big Fat Cat in Barcelona

Statues are everywhere in cities. Usually, we don’t even notice them. They are at the corner of our favourite cafe, on the shopping streets or in front of train stations that we use every day (at least we used to before the pandemic). But, some statues stand out, and the great city of Barcelona houses two of those!

A chubby horse and a big fat cat

At Barcelona El Prat airport, something unusual greets you since 1992: a chubby horse! No, it is not an odd local phrase for a gate or something. It is an actual chubby horse sculpture you will see just after you landed while trying to figure out where is the shuttle to the city centre. The horse sculpture in the airport, El Caballo, is a popular meeting point for the travellers. Well, how could you miss such an oversized house sculpture, right? So, it makes perfect sense. 

gato botero barcelona, gato botero raval, escultura botero barcelona, escultura de gatos, gatos de botero

 

Its body looks like that of bears. It has a tree trunk of a neck. A tail like an elongated party balloon. And a face… I can never quite work out the face. It’s serene I think. Quizzical. Maybe just a little pissed off.

 

Culture Trip lists the two sculptures among the most eccentric sculptures in Barcelona, that I cannot disagree with. However, the two seem going beyond just being eccentric and became landmarks, meeting points, tourist attractions, and political medium to communicate.

Well-done big ones, we are proud of you!

STORIES BEHIND: The Kelpies and a Tribute to Working Animals

The Kelpies are unique sculptures erected in Helix Park Scotland, and this is their story.

So what are kelpies?

A kelpie is a mythical creature in Scottish folklore. Kelpies are aquatic shape-shifting creatures found in lochs, waterways and streams.  These are malevolent creatures that trick and drag people, especially children, into the water, and drown them.

They are mostly described as horses, and sometimes as women. Well, there is an obvious sexism here, describing evil creatures as women apparently.

It is quite likely that the very existence of the legend of Lochness Monster is actually rooted in this folklore of water spirits.

But why to erect these sculptures?

Is it to re-tell the legend of kelpie? Is it to pass this legend to younger generations?

Well, actually, although the name of the installation was clearly inspired by the water horse legend and it was built as a horse-head by the water, the aim of the artist was different than these.

The sculptor who designed the Kelpies, Andy Scott, explains that it is more about “the social history of horses” (check the video below).  Perhaps this angle is even more interesting than a mythical creature per se. What would he mean by the social history of horses?

Horse-power was an important aspect of industrialisation of the country. The canals were like the highways of the times of the industrial revolution. These were the most advanced and convenient way of transportation of the time and horses played a huge part in this. Horses were used to draw narrowboats, also called canal barges, along the canals. Horse-drawn canal boats were used up until their replacement with the boats with steam engines. So, actually, the transportation of the goods via canals was realised by using horses.

A horse-drawn boat around 1900 (Image Credit: canalrivertrust.co.uk)

In fact, the Kelpies aimed to commemorate the horse-powered heritage of Scotland, and Andy defines this as “an interesting celebration of the legacy of the horses” in this country.

Of course, this significant public art installation also becomes a tourist attraction, and even special tours from Glasgow are operated for visiting the Helix park where the sculptures are located.

So, now you know, from the mythical water horses to working horses of industrial times, the Kelpies mark these majestic animals’ legacy, and tell their stories to future generations.

(Image Credits: https://www.thehelix.co.uk/ https://britainexplorer.com/listing/the-kelpies/ Trixta Photography)

STORIES BEHIND: A Duke with a Cone?

Some statues mark their presence with a twist, and this is one of those: the statue of Duke of Wellington in Glasgow.

The statue is a part of the cityscape and famous with its cone on top of it.

 

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The statue was erected in 1844. So, the story goes back some time. Not a definite one though. It is not certain when the cone had first been placed. But, one day, people of Glasgow woke up with the scene that an equestrian statue of a mighty Duke appeared to have a traffic cone on its head.

The statue was listed one of the top ten most bizarre monuments on Earth by Lonely Planet (inews). Clearly, it is loved by the public and tourists since it has many appearances like a replica of the statue erected in the opening ceremony of Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games. Lovely, isn’t it?

Despite the statue’s popularity due to the cone, the cone has been removed several times and put back. The council even passed some plans to end this tradition by raising the height so people cannot climb to put the cone back. The plans were backfired, for obvious reasons. Why would it be another boring man with a horse statue? Who does not like a Duke with a traffic cone?

The council had said that raising the height would end a practice which projected a “depressing image” of Glasgow and would save the £10,000 cost of removing the cone 100 times a year. The scheme would have seen a new granite-clad concrete base of 86cm (34in) added to the memorial to raise its overall height.

However, the council has reconsidered its decision after an online petition called “Save Wellington’s Cone”, which gathered thousands of signatories in just a few hours, and a Facebook campaign which had planned a rally in support of the cone.

A council spokesman said: “The wording of the report was appalling and the leader of the council (Gordon Matheson) has instructed officers to withdraw the planning application.” (BBC)

Also, as the campaigners state “The cone on Wellington’s head is an iconic part of Glasgow’s heritage, and means far more to the people of Glasgow and to visitors than Wellington himself ever has.” (BBC). Besides, in the campaign, there are a few good points which may affect the council’s decision such as “does anyone really think that a raised plinth will deter drunk Glaswegians?” Well, I agree with that!

Among other things, there is one point that we are not quite sure: What would Duke Wellington think about this?

Luckily, we have historians! According to inews, historian Dudley-Edwards argues that “Wellington himself would have been amused by the practice and embodied the ‘keep it coney’ ethos” since “He liked to keep it real”.

At the end of the day, the duke with a cone is a Rabelaisian act against mightiness of equestrian figures. The equestrian figures are usually associated with power and glorification of a person. The cone, on the other hand, turns the statue into a human being again.

Even better, there is a second twist in this story, the statue is located right in front of the Gallery of Modern Art. Yes, that is right. There is a classical equestrian statue right in front of a modern art gallery and it has a cone on the top of its head!

Bonus: A rare shot of the statue without a cone, but with a seagull!

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(Image Credit: inews / eveningtimes.co.uk)

Stories Behind: The Statue of Tombili and the Cats of Istanbul

Tombili was one of the many street cats in Istanbul. A statue was erected to honour her and this is the story behind it.

Cities in Turkey are famous with cats roaming free. Although the cats live o streets, it is hard to call them strays or feral cats. They co-habit with people for centuries. They are part of urban culture in Turkey. Recently an award-winning documentary on the lives of cats in Istanbul was in cinemas, as you may have seen it already.

Individuals, and sometimes municipalities, take care of the needs of these beloved neighbours by feeding them and taking care of their health issues. For winter times, some individuals, NGOs and municipalities locate cat houses on streets to help them to survive in colder days.

Tombili was a beloved cat citizen of Istanbul and roamed on her street for almost 10 years. She became an internet celebrity when his famous pose is posted on the net. Tombili means chubby in Turkish and she is called as Tombili by her fellow humans for obvious reasons. A statue was erected on her favourite spot for her memory after her death.

People loved her so much. She became a mascot for the street with her laid back lifestyle. After her death, people started a petition to honour her and collected more than 17000 signature, which let them erect the statue in October 2016. I am not quite sure if it is the only street cat statue in the world, but it took attention from the media all over the world.

 

 

Unfortunately, not everyone values the friendship between Tombili and fellow humans. The statue was stolen in November in the same year, almost within a month after its opening. It sparked an outrage. Social media outlets were flooded with anger from people condemning the culprits.

Kadikoy municipality, the council which erected the statue, twitted “It is stolen” with a crying cat emoji:

The thieves could not be indifferent to this massive outcry, and returned the statue to its place within a week. The statue is now on Ziverbey Street, Kadikoy, where it belongs. Tombili is still in her neighbours’ lives with this statue.

The Tombili statue on Ziverbey Street (Image Credit: Tombili Facebook Page)

And this is the story of Tombili and her legacy.

Tombili (Image Credit: Anadolu Kedisi / Huffington Post)

Stories Behind: Mary Barbour and The Legendary Rent Strike

Some stories are never to be forgotten. After a hundred years, Mary Barbour’s statue now stands at Govan Cross.

I am starting a new series called “Stories Behind” telling the stories behind statues on the streets.

The series starts with a brave woman, Mary Barbour, whose statue was erected in Govan, Glasgow today at the International Women’s Day.

The early 1900s were the times of overcrowding and poor living conditions in Glasgow.  The workers were flocking into the cities to work at newly emerging industries and the landlords were benefiting of this. During the World War I the rent incresese reached up to 25 %, and the rent strikes were against this unacceptable rates.

Tenants across the city refused to pay increases imposed since the start of the war. So, their point is, this increases were unacceptable and unaffordable by many working class families.

Yet the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, established before 1914 to fight for better housing conditions, soon galvanised growing discontent over the increases by calling for a city-wide rent strike … . Early support from the areas closest to the shipyards, such as Govan and Partick, where tens of thousands were crammed into poorly maintained tenements, soon spread across much of the city. By September 1915 around 20,000 households were on rent strike in Glasgow alone, and the protests were spreading to other parts of the west of Scotland and beyond. (theconservation)

Mary Barbour was a leading figure in the epic rent strike started in Glasgow in 1915. The strikers formed eviction resistance groups, mainly women, which were dubbed as “Mrs Barbour’s Army”. (commonspace)

This is how they organised the strike and prevent evictions:

one woman with a bell would sit in the tenement close, watching while the other women living in the tenement went on with their household duties. Whenever the Bailiff’s Officer appeared to evict a tenant, the woman in the passage immediately rang the bell, and the other women put down whatever work they were doing and hurried to where the alarm was being raised. They would hurl flour bombs and other missiles at the bailiff, forcing him to make a hasty retreat.  It is said they even pulled down his trousers to humiliate him! (Remember Mary Barbour)

The rent strike started in September and by November more than 25,000 working class families were refusing to pay rent. As a result of the strike, the Parliament passed the Rent Restriction Act. This froze rent at 1914 levels unless improvements had been made to the property.

The strikers’ demands had been met.

Remember Mary Barbour Campaign raised funds to errect a statue of Mary Barbour to commemorate her legacy. The statue now stands at Govan as a constant reminder of the legendary rent strike in Glasgow.

 

 

(Image credit: Top Eveningtimes / Bottom Personal Archive)