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

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia