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.

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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 appears in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies