BY Salena Barry in Opinion | 22 JUN 22

The National Windrush Monument Is a Bittersweet Tribute to Courage

Salena Barry reflects on how the public art commission captures the pioneering spirit of Britain’s Caribbean community

BY Salena Barry in Opinion | 22 JUN 22

Standing on a plinth made of suitcases, a man, woman and child hold hands tightly, solemnly looking into the distance. These larger-than-life figures, rendered in near-painterly undulations of bronze, are Britain’s new National Windrush Monument. The three-and-a-half-metre statue, depicting a family that has just arrived in London from the Caribbean, is the first of its kind to pay tribute, on a national level, to the thousands of commonwealth citizens who moved to the UK between 1948 and 1971. This group has since been referred to as the Windrush Generation, named after one of the earliest passenger ships to travel from the West Indies to Britain.

According to the hefty brief outlined in the government’s announcement for the GB£1 million public art commission, the monument commemorates the ‘dreams, ambition, courage and resilience’ of the Windrush Generation. Created by Jamaican sculptor Basil Watson, the work was unveiled in London Waterloo railway station on 22 June 2022, the fourth anniversary of Windrush Day. I suspect that this monument, much like the day of celebration, will prompt a mix of emotions. After all, both are examples of the same bittersweet recognition that often elevates a past worthy of commemoration above the realities of the present.

Jamaican immigrants reading a newspaper on board the Empire Windrush
Newly arrived Jamaican immigrants on board the 'Empire Windrush' at Tilbury on 22 June 1948. Courtesy: Douglas Miller, Keystone, Getty Images

As an immigrant and someone of Caribbean ancestry, I feel both proud of and indebted to the Windrush Generation. They paved the way for other immigrants of colour to build lives for themselves in the UK. However, their resilience and optimism, like that of the just-arrived family depicted in Watson’s statue, is only one part of an unfolding story woven through with uncomfortable truths about the racism, exclusion and violence many immigrants and people of colour continue to face in the UK. Some notable incidents include: the 1970 case of the Mangrove Nine, in which protestors campaigning against the racist targeting of a Caribbean restaurant were charged with inciting a riot; the 2017 Windrush scandal, in which hundreds of British subjects from the Caribbean were unlawfully detained or deported by the Home Office; and, in April 2022, the detention of a non-verbal Black British teenager, who was sent to an immigration centre and scheduled for deportation to Nigeria.

Render of Basil Watson's National Windrush Monument
Render of The National Windrush Monument statue. Courtesy: the artist and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

When I look at this statue, I see a moment in time divorced from the challenging decades that followed: years in which the resilience the government seeks to commemorate was truly tested. Aside from the work’s scale and Watson’s international profile – the sculptor’s previous ministerial commissions include statues of Martin Luther King Jr (2021) and Usain Bolt (2017), located in Atlanta and Kingston respectively – I wonder if this is enough to make passers-by engage with the story and legacy of Britain’s Caribbean community. I worry that the monument’s permanent home inside Waterloo Station is not an ideal site for the contemplation it deserves. Watson’s family of three and their suitcases might fade into the background of a terminal where families and suitcases are commonplace.

Artist Veronica Ryan stands among her sculptures of Caribbean fruit
Veronica Ryan OBE's Windrush Sculptures Unveiling in 2021. Photograph: Wayne Crichlow; Courtesy: Hackney Council

Last October, Hackney Council in London was the first to recognize the significant contributions Caribbean communities have made to the capital with a public work of art: Veronica Ryan’s sculpture of three Caribbean fruits, Custard Apple (Annonaceae), Breadfruit (Moraceae), Soursop (Annonaceae) (2021). The beauty and strangeness of these fruits draw the curiosity of passers-by and celebrates a cultural through line, linking past, present and future generations by taking food as its subject. Nevertheless, residents interviewed by The Independent and My London described the sculpture as ‘a slap in the face’ and ‘underwhelming’. Many locals felt aggrieved that the people Ryan’s work is meant to celebrate are not sufficiently visible. Similarly, the National Windrush Monument drew criticism from The Windrush Foundation – a charity that highlights African and Caribbean peoples’ contributions to UK – who said that Waterloo Station is incongruous to where many Caribbean people first arrived. Both reactions reflect the disappointment and polarization inherent to public-art commissioning.

Can any sculpture hold the complexity of what the Windrush Generation has experienced? I fear not. Nevertheless, I am glad that the monument was erected and that the contributions and struggles of my ancestors have been commemorated at a national level: they deserve it. A greater tribute to them, however, will come from continuing to share their stories and drawing on their strength to create a future as luminous as the one they envisioned when they stepped off the Empire Windrush 74 years ago.

Main image: Visual render of Basil Watson's proposal for The National Windrush Monument in Waterloo Station. Courtesy: Up Projects

Salena Barry is a writer and digital communications professional living in London, UK. She is a 2022 Jerwood Writer in Residence.