Ikon Director Responds to A Real Birmingham Family Controversy

Gillian Wearing’s bronze sculpture hit a nerve.

Gillian Wearing, A Real Birmingham Family (2014) Courtesy Birmingham City Council, Arts Council England, and Ikon
Gillian Wearing, A Real Birmingham Family (2014) Courtesy Birmingham City Council, Arts Council England, and Ikon

What is a family? The question lies at the heart of Gillian Wearing’s A Real Birmingham Family, the bronze sculpture of two single-mother sisters and their children, unveiled in Birmingham at the end of last month (see “Does This Statue Represent the Modern Family?”)

“A nuclear family is one reality, but it is one of many and this work celebrates the idea that what constitutes a family should not be fixed,” explained the artist at the time of inauguration.

The message of this piece─commissioned by Ikon Gallery, which raised £100,000 for the project─couldn’t be more conciliatory, but this hasn’t prevented it from becoming instantly controversial.

Writing in the Daily Mail, Tory commentator Amanda Platell stringently attacked the artwork, calling it a “betrayal of the traditional values that held great communities like Birmingham together” and “a totem for extreme feminists, who more and more argue that women don’t need men at all.”

Bobby Smith's one-man protest Photo via: New Fathers for Justice

Bobby Smith’s one-man protest
Photo via: New Fathers for Justice

As the Birmingham Mail reported, the lack of a father figure has also irked the New Fathers for Justice activist Bobby Smith. On November 1st, he staged a one-man protest, which involved posing in front of one of the sisters’ bronze statue, sticking photos of his own children on the sculptures, and covering the other sister with a white sheet.

“There’s nothing wrong with single mothers but this statue is saying one person can do both jobs, and I believe kids are always better off with both parents in their lives,” he told the local newspaper at the time, adding that the statue was “not a great thing to show young people.”

These reactions only confirm how urgent the debate about the new realities of the family unit truly is. “[A Real Birmingham Family] is about process and debate,” Ikon director Jonathan Watkins told artnet news. “Thinking of this project as simply a cast bronze would be underestimating it, and its importance, considerably.”

“It doesn’t symbolize anything more than a kind of spirit of inquiry,” he added. “Nobody is saying that this is the perfect family, a typical family, a normal family─any kind of family except this real one family, the family of the Jones, who are alive and well, happy, loving, and loyal to each other in Birmingham in 2014.”

Watkins also met up with protester Smith: “We had a good exchange of ideas,” he recalled. “He has his take on things, and I have my take on things. I think it’s great that somebody has the freedom to express themselves. It’s all good, it’s part of this democratic society that we cherish.”

“I’m operating in the field of contemporary art and, if there isn’t an area for freedom of expression there, then it’s a sad state of affairs,” he concluded.


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