A permanent memorial is planned for a Nigerian man David Oluwale, who drowned in the River Aire in Leeds, West Riding of Yorkshire, UK, more than 50 years ago after years of harassment from police.
Oluwale, who was born in Nigeria but moved to England in 1949, was last seen running away from two police officers on Call Lane in Leeds city centre before his body was later pulled from the River Aire in 1969.
His tragic death led to a hard-fought battle in the courts, with Oluwale’s supporters claiming he was ‘hounded to death’ by police.
The officers, Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching were charged at a trial more than two years after his death in the first prosecution of its kind, where British police officers were found to be involved in the death of a black person. They were found not guilty of manslaughter.
Instead, they were charged with a series of assaults after numerous incidents of physical abuse against David, in the build-up to his death. By this stage, David was living on the streets of Leeds.
The case shone a spotlight on institutional racism and the memorial sculpture will be a reminder of ‘the giant strides’ made by Leeds on diversity and inclusion over the last 50 years.
British-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare CBE RA has been commissioned by the David Oluwale Memorial Association (DOMA) to create a sculpture of David.
The sculpture will be unveiled as part of Leeds 2023 and will be a feature of the new park planned for the city centre on the site of the former Tetley Brewery, close to the River Aire where he died.
Leeds City Council commissioned an independent review of the cities 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.
It 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.
Yinka, who was born in London but moved to Lagos, Nigeria at three-years-old, said the sculpture is a “symbol of hope” and said it is an “honour” to have been asked to create this work. The Turner Prize nominee and Royal Academician said:
“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.”
Founding patron of DOMA Caryl Phillips, who first suggested the idea of a memorial. Dr Emily Zobel Marshall from DOMA said:
“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.”
Cllr Judith Blake , leader of the 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.”
"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.”