Artist Yinka Shonibare Will Sculpt a New Memorial in Leeds to a Black Immigrant Whose Death Sparked a Reckoning With UK Police

The sculpture pays tribute to David Oluwale, a Nigerian immigrant who drowned in 1969.

Yinka Shonibare with his installation "The British Library." Photo by Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images.

The artist Yinka Shonibare will erect a memorial in honor of David Oluwale, a Nigerian immigrant who died 51 years ago in the English city of Leeds after prolonged harassment by local police.  

Shonibare’s sculpture, set to be unveiled in 2023, will be permanently installed in a new park planned for the Leeds city center, not far from the River Aire, where Oluwale’s body was discovered on May 4, 1969.

Two officers were later found guilty of multiple assaults against Oluwale in what is thought to be the first instance of the successful prosecution of British law enforcement for their involvement in the death of a Black person. Oluwale was last seen being chased by policemen along the river. The manslaughter charges against the officers were dropped.

In a statement, Shonibare called the sculpture a “symbol of hope” and an “everyday reminder of our desire to improve the lives of all and a place for people to come together.” 

“It is an honor to have been asked to create this new work to remember an ordinary man with an extraordinary legacy,” he added.

David Oluwale. Courtesy of the David Oluwale Memorial Association.

David Oluwale. Courtesy of the David Oluwale Memorial Association.

Oluwale immigrated to the UK in 1949 by hiding on a cargo ship. He spent much of the next decade incarcerated in a Leeds asylum seeking treatment for hallucinations that likely stemmed from being hit with a club during a 1953 argument over a bill at a local hotel. 

After his release, Oluwale failed to secure permanent housing and largely lived on the streets, where he was subject to repeated persecution from police, including numerous instances of physical and psychological abuse.  

With support from Leeds city council and Arts Council England, the sculpture is being commissioned by the David Oluwale Memorial Association, a UK charity organization formed in the name of remembering the victim of police brutality. For years, the group has lobbied the city of Leeds to build a monument to Oluwale, an effort that gained unprecedented momentum last year after the city council conducted a review into its public statues and monuments in the wake of the protests in summer 2020.

“The city of Leeds has a responsibility to acknowledge, learn from, and take inspiration from the life and death of David,” said Emily Zobel Marshall, a board member of the David Oluwale Memorial Association, in a statement. “The sculpture will be a memorial for him and also a symbol for the city, a reminder of issues s2ll faced by many today and a place for quiet contemplation as well as cultural celebration.”

Born in London and raised in Nigeria, Shonibare has spent the past 40 years living in the UK. In an interview with The Guardian, he described the police treatment of young Black men during that time as “relentless, annoying, and embarrassing.”

“I think the memorial will keep that in people’s minds and remind people that we live in a multicultural society and diversity is important,” he added. “People are not actually asking for much: we’re asking for employment, and that you treat us equally. That’s all we’re asking for, I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

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