Public work

Yinka Shonibare CBE RA to create new sculpture for Leeds 2023 Commissioned by the David Oluwale Memorial Association

Aire Park, Leeds, England

A new sculpture from international artist Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, has been commissioned by the David Oluwale Memorial Association (DOMA) to honour the life of the British Nigerian and Leeds resident whose personal story inspired local people to create a lasting legacy to mark his life. The sculpture will be unveiled as part of Leeds 2023, the city’s landmark year of culture.

Following years of work by DOMA, Shonibare’s sculpture will be a significant project in the programme for Leeds 2023. Currently in the research and development stage, with the support of a challenge grant from Leeds 2023, a scaled maquette will be produced by Shonibare in 2021 to accompany a series of community engagement events, an integral part of the project.

Kully Thiarai, creative director and CEO of Leeds 2023, said: “DOMA have created an extraordinary moment for Leeds by bringing an artist of the calibre of Yinka Shonibare to our city. Yinka’s sculpture will encourage us to learn from the past and is an incredible legacy for the future. Across our city, there are many people who are locked out of opportunities and through projects like this one, and more, we have the potential to help create chances to nurture and inspire the next generation of creative talent as well as celebrate the rich diversity and internationalism of Leeds.”

Artist Shonibare was born in London and moved to Lagos, Nigeria when he was three years old, returning later to study Fine Art at Byam School of Art (now Central Saint Martin’s College) and then at Goldsmith’s College. A Turner Prize nominee (2004) and Royal Academician, he commented: “It is an honour to have been asked to create this new work to remember an ordinary man with an extraordinary legacy. This sculpture will be a symbol of hope; an everyday reminder of our desire to improve the lives of all and a place for people to come together and I’m looking forward to working with DOMA and the communities where David lived in the months and years to come.”

The life of David Oluwale was cut short when he drowned in the River Aire in 1969 following years of mental ill-health, homelessness, racism, destitution and police persecution.

Founding patron of DOMA Caryl Phillips first suggested the idea of a memorial. Dr Emily Zobel Marshall from DOMA comments: “The city of Leeds has a responsibility to acknowledge, learn from and take inspiration from the life and death of David and because of Leeds City Council and Leeds 2023 we are now able to progress ideas and plans we’ve worked over the last few years towards a permanent memorial for David. His story has left a mark on the city he came to from Nigeria to find a better life. The sculpture will be a memorial for him and also a symbol for the city, a reminder of issues still faced by many today and a place for quiet contemplation as well as cultural celebration. A better future can only be built on a better understanding of the past and remembering David can help us with that, leaving a legacy of hope and creativity.”

Leeds City Council commissioned an independent review of Leeds’s historic statues and monuments earlier this year amid calls from anti-racism campaigners for sculptures and other public artwork across the UK to better reflect themes such as diversity and inclusivity. The review’s findings were considered and accepted by the council’s executive board in October. The review recommended the commissioning of more works of art that commemorate the diverse life and times of Leeds, and it is hoped that Yinka Shonibare’s sculpture will underline the city’s commitment to telling the story of all its residents, past and present.

Shonibare’s piece will be an important feature of a new park planned for Leeds city centre on the site of the former Tetley brewery, close to the River Aire. Developed by Vastint UK with work starting on site in 2021, Aire Park will be the largest new city centre green space in the UK.

Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, said: “The tragic life and death of David Oluwale is a reminder of the giant strides that have been made by our city on diversity and inclusion over the last 50 years. This sculpture promises to be a fitting tribute to David and should also be a source of inspiration and pride for the people who continue to work tirelessly to ensure Leeds is a place that offers a warm welcome to all. We must never forget the events, good and bad, that have helped mould modern-day Leeds, a city where differences are celebrated and communities join together in a spirit of positivity. The sculpture will be a thought-provoking addition to the new Aire Park and I very much look forward to seeing the project taking shape in the months and years to come.”

This project has recently been awarded a development grant from Arts Council England, completing the funding jigsaw for Phase 1 which includes significant support from Leeds 2023, additional funding from Leeds Civic Trust and donations from private individuals and trusts.

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