A £100,000 bronze statue representing in monumental form the modern British family was unveiled outside Birmingham’s new central library this week and has been enthusiastically welcomed by some for featuring two single mothers, one heavily pregnant, and no father at all.
The work of public art was created by Turner-prize winning artist Gillian Wearing after a competition to select ‘A Real Birmingham family’, from which the artwork takes its name. A remarkable 372 families applied to be considered, but as the artist wanted to convey what “constitutes a family isn’t fixed” she settled on two sisters instead.
Emma Jones, her son Shaye-Jones Amin, and Roma Jones with son Kyan Ishann Jones and unborn Isaac Jones feature in the statue, which has been praised because “It really does look like them”. Speaking of their home town, the sisters said: “Being mixed race we feel at home here as it’s so diverse and multicultural. As a result, we believe the mixed race population in Brum [Birmingham] will only increase… We feel it highlights the fact ‘family’ is an indestructible bond between people that is universal. It doesn’t matter how it is made up”.
This is not the first time Wearing has been commissioned to create a public statue of a typical family, although the means employed to choose a model has varied. While Birmingham was created to make a statement, a previous work by the artist in Italy was chosen to create “harmony”. The local government provided statistics to the artist about the typical make-up of a local family, and so the statue represented them. It featured a mother, father, their two children, and a pet dog.
English teacher and Guardian columnist Lola Okolosie wrote a glowing appraisal of the new Birmingham work, which was funded by public money and private donations, in an article entitled ‘Hooray for single mothers’. Okolosie opined: “The image of the prosaic-sounding Joneses doesn’t take us nostalgically back to the 1950s. Thankfully, it isn’t a white picket-fence rendition of family as singularly nuclear… In total a quarter of our families are single-parent households, a figure that has tripled since the 1970s”.
Not all are so jubilant. John Hemming, a local Liberal Democrat member of parliament said “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with single parent families but I always find it sad when fathers are not involved in the lives of their children”. The Mirror reports the words of Craig Pickering from charity Families Need Fathers: “Everybody knows that families can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes but this interpretation of a family seems most bizarre. It is factually inaccurate and totally out of step.
“Children do better when they have both their mother and their father playing an active role in their lives”.
The work stands on a patch of lawn outside Birmingham’s new Central Library, a significant contemporary building and the third to have performed the role in 50 years. The city’s original library, a notable Victorian Gothic survivor of the Second World War was demolished in 1974 as part of the ‘master plan’ for the city. The second library, a Brutalist inverted pyramid which Prince Charles compared to “a place where books are incinerated, not kept” is due to be demolished by the end of the year.
Architectural critic Stephen Bayley remarks the design has nothing to do with books and people who read them, but everything to do with the ego of the person who designed it – the whole library is nothing more than an advertisement for the architect. He lambasts the new library, caustically remarking “the state of public building is a measure of a nation’s psychic health”.
If that is the case, it may be worth noting this spot of wisdom from Woody Allen’s Celebrity: “You can learn a lot about a society by who it chooses to celebrate”. It may be that this applies very well to whom we choose to erect public statues of as well.