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.