Art’s Not Meant to be Easy

A few months ago, while we were spending a couple of days in Birmingham, we stumbled across a piece of public art that is as controversial as it is unusual. A Real Birmingham Family, by sculptor Gillian Wearing, depicts two local sisters – each single mothers, one of them heavily pregnant – with their two children. Cast in bronze, the sculpture was erected in Centenary Square, prominently positioned in front of the Library of Birmingham, in 2014. A storm’s been raging around it ever since.

Most of the figurative public art found in cities and towns across the UK features folk who might loosely described as representatives of ‘the great and the good‘, although, to be blunt, a number of them were neither great nor good, but simply had an effective PR machine behind them!

Representations of past and present royalty, politicians, war heroes, cultural and sporting icons, and sundry local bigwigs clutter our public footways. Their subjects are predominantly male and overwhelmingly White, and the statues seemingly yell “look at me, look at me, aren’t I important!” to anyone glancing in their direction. Diversity is in short supply, and the sculptures mostly seem detached from the realities of everyday life. So I’m left wondering, what about ordinary folk? Where are the statues depicting people like me and you? Don’t we count too? What about our lives?

Similar thoughts may have crossed the mind of managers at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery of contemporary art in 2011, when they initiated a process to find a “real” Birmingham family to model for the sculpture. Nominations were invited, but what constitutes a “real” family was not specified. From the nominations received four families were shortlisted, with the eventual winners being selected by a panel of community, cultural and religious figures. Here’s what the curator of the Ikon Gallery had to say about the winners:

“Their story is compelling and says much about contemporary Birmingham. Two mixed-race sisters, both single-parents with happy, lively young boys, who identify themselves strongly with the city of their birth. The variety of nominations to ‘A Real Birmingham Family’ has shown us that while the traditional, nuclear family may no longer be the norm, the ties that bind us together are as strong as ever.”

Stuart Tulloch, quoted in the Birmingham Mail 28 August 2013, retrieved 17 November 2022

It’s evident from Tulloch’s statement that A Real Birmingham Family is a million miles away from the typical statue found on the UK’s streets. They are not drawn from the dubious ranks of ‘the great and the good’. Rather, in the nicest possible way, the Jones sisters and their kids are just ordinary people, a loving family supporting one another and living the best lives they can, even though the path they have taken does not conform with long-standing societal norms. Surely this something worthy of celebration?

And yet the sculpture has drawn stinging criticism from some quarters because, as one commentator has claimed, it is “a sad betrayal of the traditional values that held great communities like Birmingham together…[and] a totem for extreme feminists who more and more argue that women don’t need men at all.”

Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to learn that I don’t see it that way!

If the artist’s intention was to propose that single parent arrangements are inevitably superior to traditional, nuclear family set-ups, then there might be cause for complaint. But surely that isn’t what Wearing’s work is telling us? What she seems to be saying is that while most of us – I suspect – have been raised in a nuclear family, alternative family models can also be successful. Her piece is a commentary, an observation of one way in which families can function effectively in the 21st century. Other options are also available!

I fully understand that this piece of public art may be uncomfortable for anyone wedded to tradition, for anyone who instinctively believes that the old ways are inevitably the best ways, or indeed the only acceptable ways. But by seeking to challenge careless stereotypes and preconceptions, Wearing is doing one the jobs that it is an artist’s duty to perform: she is making us reflect, making us debate, making us think critically about the world in which we live, even if the process is painful. Art’s not meant to be easy.

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20 comments

  1. Paddy Tobin · 15 Days Ago

    Yes, it is a sculpture which makes us think and consider and represents an aspect of today’s society rather than portraying an individual as was the practice in previous eras. I find it very worthwhile. It moves us to consider what is family these days, an opening of the mind, perhaps.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 14 Days Ago

      Agreed. I see it as a piece of social commentary, and potentially very useful as a means of stimulating debate about the way we live now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Gingold · 15 Days Ago

    I don’t have any deep philosophical comments to make about this because I think it is perfectly normal and acceptable in our world today…and I am not particularly and deeply philosophical.

    Some folks cling to the old way out of a loss of understanding and acceptance of change and rebel against anything that does not fit in their comfort zone. Some feel that representations of a new way toss them onto the dust pile of history rather than the fore of the future. I had a girlfriend many years ago who had a banner hanging in her apartment that said “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”. I was not at all offended and as I was her boyfriend at the time felt that she didn’t “need” me but wanted me. A healthy thing I believe. Some women and some men find that they want or need to be with the same sex. Others are fine with traditional pairings. No problem in my opinion. Live your own life and let others live theirs.

    As far as the sculpture it is beautifully done and I hope stands in its spot for a very long time and without some idiot defacing it which likely would have already happened here in the U.S..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 14 Days Ago

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Steve – I totally agree with you. “Live and let live” is the decent, civilised way to go. Regarding the risk of the sculpture being defaced, there were initially some protests by members of an organisation called New Fathers 4 Justice, which campaigns for the rights of fathers to see their children. But no damage was done, and I suspect (hope, anyway) that the risk of more extreme action has now passed.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. June’s Travels · 14 Days Ago

    It is very interesting to read about Birmingham! We have a Birmingham in Alabama without canals, haha. Thank you for mentioning the behind story of “A Real Birmingham Family”. Without reading your blog, if I go to Birmingham and look at this sculpture, I possibly just feel it is cool and won’t think anything😻 The sculpture is a nice piece of street art! Often on the middle-of-the-road, I totally agree what you said, “Live and let live”.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Platypus Man · 14 Days Ago

      I’m glad you liked the sculpture and the “live and let live” message that underlies it. But as you suggest, regardless of the message it’s simply a very attractive piece of street art that enhances the area in which it stands.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ditto here. Just looking at the sculpture without the backstory and I just feel it says “love and family”.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Platypus Man · 14 Days Ago

      Yes, agreed. When we first saw the sculpture I knew nothing of the backstory, but liked it just the same as an appealing work of art. It’s a joyful creation, but knowing now just how it came about adds an extra – and very unexpected – dimension.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Laurie Graves · 14 Days Ago

    With you all the way. What. The. Heck. Times change. Families change. Love remains.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. tanjabrittonwriter · 8 Days Ago

    I’m also with you all the way in your assessment. And I suspect that this sculpture won’t even raise an eyebrow for future generations who are growing up in a far more varied society than used to be the norm.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 7 Days Ago

      You’re right, society is – generally speaking, anyway – becoming more diverse, and more tolerant. When the sculpture was unveiled the protestors were in a minority, albeit a vocal minority. Most people, I think, shrugged their shoulders and adopted a “live and let live” attitude towards it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Carol Ann Siciliano · 7 Days Ago

    I very much appreciate your essay about this compelling, joyful piece of art. Your outrage, bewilderment and respect echo in every line of your post, and I share them. Thank you for bringing us into the conversation and for urging me to think about my own “careless stereotypes and preconceptions.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · 6 Days Ago

      From what I know of you from your own posts I suspected this would strike a chord with you! When we first came across this sculpture I was intrigued – it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. So when we got home I did a bit of research, and yes, I found myself dismayed by the reception the piece had received in some quarters. I think the negativity was a minority view, but a vocal minority nevertheless, one that got coverage in a national newspaper as well as the local media. The controversy has largely died down now, and I’d like to think the Birmingham Family is appreciated by all who encounter it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Carol Ann Siciliano · 3 Days Ago

        This is a lovely postscript to the story. Let us continue to amplify the good (and let the naysayers slip away into silence).

        Liked by 1 person

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