Flashback: Birmingham Library in the 1970s. Photo: Getty
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Why Gillian Wearing made a statue of two single mothers

Her sculpture depicts two sisters, Roma and Emma Jones (who, like Wearing, were born in Birmingham), and their sons. It has attracted local interest, as well as complaints from fathers and the far right.

In Centenary Square in Birmingham, opposite the new library, there are statues of three industrialists – Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch – who transformed this city into “the workshop of the world”. On 30 October they will be joined by a very different statue, when Gillian Wearing’s A Real Birmingham Family is unveiled across the road.

Her sculpture depicts two sisters, Roma and Emma Jones (who, like Wearing, were born in Birmingham), and their sons Kyan and Shane. It has attracted local interest, as well as complaints from disgruntled fathers and the far right.

It was commissioned by the Ikon Gallery, which has been a bastion of contemporary art in Birmingham throughout the past 50 years. Ikon held a public competition, open to any local family. All entrants had to do was submit a photo and a short statement about what family – and Birmingham – meant to them. The selection panel included Wearing, Jonathan Watkins, director of Ikon, the editor of the Birmingham Post, a sociology lecturer and Ian Taylor, a former Aston Villa footballer. There were 372 entrants. On a rainy Monday morning this month, I met the winners just before they saw their statue for the first time.

Roma heard about the contest when she took her son, Kyan, to the library. She asked her younger sister, Emma, if she’d like to enter, too. “We’ve always been our own little family,” Roma says, over coffee in Ikon’s cosy café. “We’re not just like sisters,” Emma agrees. “Our relationship’s a lot more than just that.”

When the statue was cast, Emma was visibly pregnant. She has since given birth to Isaac, who is here with her today. Her first son, Shane, is now five years old. Roma’s son, Kyan, is four.

Wearing has explored this kind of territory before. A Typical Trentino Family, which she made in 2008, was also a statue of “ordinary” people, but for that work she chose a family that reflected the local average. This time, in a more diverse city, she wanted to commemorate something less conventional.

“We always feel like we’re different, because we’re mixed-race and single parents,” Emma says. “That’s what the statue’s about. It’s about being from Birmingham.” It’s a very conventional statue but that is what gives it such authority. Stylistically, it’s no different from the statue of Edward VII down the road.

“We were so passionate about winning because we wanted to represent single parents,” Emma says. “When children hear stories, they hear about a mummy bear, daddy bear and baby bear. They don’t hear about a mummy bear and an auntie bear.” They believe their home town is more accepting than a lot of other places. “In Birmingham, you feel like you can be who you are,” says Roma. And they hope the statue will inspire other unconventional families to feel proud of themselves.

The local press has been very positive but the “below the line” stuff has upset the sisters. “Those comments really hurt me,” Emma says. “They weren’t saying things about us. They were saying things about single parents.” They are a little apprehensive about how people will react once the statue is standing outside the library – a Birmingham landmark, with a life and identity of its own.

“It’s weird that it’s going to be so public, because to us it’s really personal,” Emma says. And what do Kyan and Shane make of it? “The children don’t really understand that not everybody has a statue,” she says. “They don’t realise what an amazing thing it is.” 

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.