an aboriginal olympic thingy, or not


This statue of one of the London 2012 Olympic mascots is very near Liverpool Street station in London.  As we were walking past it, my 12 year old announced, “Oh look, it’s an aboriginal olympic thingy.”  So I took a photograph of it and have been mulling over its cultural referencing ever since.

So here goes.  First off, I thought it was very interesting that a young person now, growing up in a UK provincial town (ok, one with a world-leading university, but still…), would see a statue with dots on and assume that it had something to do with some Australian Aboriginal art practices.  Clear evidence that the circulation/appropriation of that art runs deep, I thought.  Except that, as far as I know, those ‘dot paintings’ don’t use just black and white – their colours tend to be more browns, whites, oranges, yellows, I think.  So maybe its circulation hasn’t run so deep after all.  I still can’t work out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

According to the statue’s plinth – below the sign telling you not to climb it – this is in fact “Pearly Mandeville”.  The black and white dots are a reference to the Pearly Kings and Queens of east London, who emerged in the early twentieth century as a means to fundraise for hospitals in the poverty-stricken East End.  Rather ironic, then, I thought, that such a reference should be made on a statue in the middle of an area of that East End that has undergone profound redevelopment in the last thirty years, with huge swathes of land around the old Spitalfields market demolished to make way for banks and restaurants (you can see some of them in the background to this photo).

And all this was trebly ironic, I thought, because surely Mandeville had been designed in that blue, blobby, one-eyed way precisely in order to escape such specific references and become a universal symbol for the Olympic and Paralympic Games that welcomed anyone from anywhere on the basis only of their sporting excellence.  But no, there I was wrong.  I did have to go to the BBC website, it’s true, to find out just what the local referencing was in its design (so the local references themselves go global via the web).  But now I know.  Mandeville, it turns out, is so named after Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, whose sporting events for its patients after the Second World War were the inspiration behind the Paralympics.  And the orange thing on Mandeville’s head references the orange light of a London black cab.

All this is such a convoluted geography that the terms ‘local’ and ‘global’ don’t come anywhere near it.  And in this aspect alone, perhaps Mandeville does refer to something more general about the current moment after all.

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