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Frieze London 2020

Thomas J Price's Monument to the Windrush Generation

For a new commission in east London, the artist is drawing on local histories to celebrate those that the UK government has turned its back on

BY Thomas J Price in Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine | 05 OCT 20

I’ve been looking at monumentalism for nearly 20 years. Even as a child, out with my mother, I’d see a statue and ask her: ‘Why’s that person up there?’ and ‘Why don’t I get this?’ Being fictional figures, my sculptures are critiques of what monumental statues are and how they’re used by society: I say they’re ‘sculptures that are about statues’. In that way, they’re often mistaken for the thing that they are critiquing – people will try to identify a specific person in the sculpture even though it’s not a statue ‘of’ anyone in particular. This is something I’ve learned to accept. I think of the works as probes put out into society, that gauge where our thinking is at any point. For me, the sculptures have always been universal – they are human first and foremost; the level of importance attached to the figures’ Blackness is what the viewer brings to it.

The pulling down of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol this summer shows that the public are actually already very aware of these objects, and the role they play in our lives. If people are now asking questions about that, it can only be a good thing. There’s an understanding that, if someone’s uncomfortable with change, that’s a reason to resist it. That just confounds me; I’ve had to get so used to being uncomfortable at this point. We can’t just be controlled by this flat notion of ‘tradition’ — we have to create the futures we say we want. And I think as we all deal with COVID-19, we see our capacity of change and of coping with change is far greater than we realize.

Part of that can be accepting the reality of our histories. The Windrush scandal, which continues to affect people from the Caribbean, was one of the most de-humanizing government actions of my lifetime. With the commission to honour Hackney’s Windrush Generation, what I want to do is galvanize empathy – to reassert that these people we speak of as a generation are real human beings who the country has benefitted from. My own grandmother came over from Jamaica during that era as a nurse.

Huntly Jr. Thompson, photographed by Ron A. Gibson of R.A. Gibson Photo Studio, in Lower Clapton, London. Image copyright Hackney Archives

I want people to meet themselves in these sculptures. So, from the beginning, I said I wanted to meet with residents in Hackney who are connected with the Windrush Generation, to talk to them, to gather photographs, to create 3D scans of them – to connect with them and their experiences. The access to this history is really pivotal to this project. I’ve also been looking at local archives, like the RA Gibson Collection which this photograph is from. Gibson ran a photography studio on Lower Clapton Road for decades, beginning in the 1950s. His pictures are a record of transformation. The people appearing in his archive become far more varied over time, reflecting immigration into east London. Often these photos would be taken to be ‘sent home’, so to speak, so there’s a whole range of images set to be projections of success, featuring the subjects in poses that would evoke respectability, and donning attributes that operated as society status symbols: the signet ring, the shoes, the watch… Some people would pose with pens in their pockets, as that was considered a sign of success, too.

Then as today, to be a Black person in a certain space – in most spaces, even – is to be performative, to present yourself so you don’t create alarm, or excuses for society to find fault with you. With this picture, I was struck initially by how the subject is a good-looking guy: his pose, the perfection of his hair, the shirt – absolutely on point… But really, what I see in these photographs is the joy of being normal. These are people just living normal, complex lives and the equivalency, the human aspect of those shared experiences, is there to see.

The Hackney Windrush art commissions by Thomas J Price and Veronica Ryan will be unveiled in 2021 and 2022 in two locations in Hackney. Commissioned by Hackney Council and produced in partnership with CREATE, they will be the first permanent public sculptures in the UK to honour the Windrush Generation.

Main image: Photograph from Hackney People's Press, 1973–85. Image copyright Hackney Archives

As told to Matthew McLean.