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Public mural of Queen and King Charles is just colonial whitewashing

Not only is the depiction of the royals a hostile act – it was painted on top of a mural by a local street artist

Tré Ventour-Griffiths
11 May 2023, 10.43am

A mural depicting Queen Elizabeth II and King Charles III in Northampton has been labelled an act of "colonial whitewashing"


Carl Court/Getty Images

Northampton Council stole a march on the coronation festivities by unveiling a mural of King Charles and the late Queen in the town centre last December.

The streets and businesses that have been alive with bunting, quiche and coronation chicken for the past few weeks may support it – even if it has been ridiculed. But their uncritical engagement with the monarchy is symptomatic of a centuries-long brainwashing expedition.

Not only is this use of public space for a celebration of the royal family an example of colonial whitewashing through art, but the work, which set the council back £1,720, was painted on top of existing street art – the much-loved ‘Wall Games’ – co-created by local artist Pure Suede.

At worst, the council’s behaviour is racist; at best, problematic.

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It’s worth pointing out Pure Suede (who is Black) told me he didn’t take it personally, referencing other examples of his work that remain in the town. However, I think the council’s actions fit into a wider conversation on whiteness as ownership, public rights to property, who public spaces actually belong to, and whose lives are (de)valued.

Others in the area agree. Northampton writer Mo Dabbler said: “The irony, even in death, of the Queen silencing marginalised voices hangs heavy in the air. It is worrying that it will go over the head of most, due to the lack of visibility and understanding regarding the horrific legacy of the royals.”

Northampton writer-photographer Chris Lowe added: “I would prefer that art on the streets was created in celebration of the people that walk them, work them, live on them and die on them, as many do.”

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To commission and unveil a mural of colonisers and the super-rich during a ‘cost of capitalism’ crisis is nothing but state-sanctioned gaslighting. What’s more, it came months after the mayor met with representatives from the government’s Race Equality Commission to discuss race equality in Northampton.

“There is a blatant avoidance of truth when it comes to systems of violence, and the monarchy is no exception,” said Laura Graham, a community activist and editor of local magazine The Happy Hood.

Local activist Hannah Litt said the mural is “a slap in the face to anyone that has been impacted by colonialism and a constant reminder of the continued institutional racism the monarchy plays a part in.” And while maintaining institutional racism may not have been the council’s intent, racism is about harm.

Amid a fervent conversation led by Black academics, activists, and thinkers during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, there was a resurgence of public engagement with the legacy of empire. This debate reached its peak with the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol and the state removal of enslaver Robert Milligan statue in London. The new mural on Guildhall Road serves the same purpose as those statues – whitewashing colonialism through art.

The Queen’s reign was punctuated by anti-colonial uprisings throughout the empire she inherited, including the human rights abuses during the Greek Cypriot War of Independence in Cyprus (1955-1959) and leading to the killing and torture of Kikuyu people during the Mau Mau Uprisings in Kenya in the 1950s.

Commissioning of murals of this nature acts as an endorsement, part of a wider grift of imperial nostalgia in a Britain that still celebrates empire. In this art, Northampton Town Council have denied the public the freedom to choose.

As local victimologist and activist Dr Amy Cortvriend, said: “Murals, statues, and other features in public landscapes come with an expectation of respect, commemoration, and celebration.”

“When walking past the museum we do not have a choice but to be confronted by the monarchy, whether we are royalists or not. This is a problem when many people in the community have been subjected to harmful impacts of (post, de- and re-) colonisation, and many more of us fundamentally oppose reminders of it.”

“Northampton is a diverse town, and in my view, it would have been a great opportunity for this to be reflected in the artwork,” said legal scholar Dr Melanie Crofts.

Northampton Town Council declined to comment.

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