As the UK Seeks to Diversify Its Public Sculptures, London Unveils a New Monument to the Black ‘Everywoman’

Sculptor Thomas J Price says there are only two other sculptures depicting Black women in the city.

Thomas J Price and his sculpture Reaching Out. Photo by Jeff Moore.

Officials in London unveiled a new public artwork depicting a Black “everywoman” this morning, August 5.

The sculpture, by artist Thomas J Price, is one of just a handful of public works in the UK featuring a Black woman.

Titled Reaching Out, the larger-than-life sculpture depicts a casually dressed Black woman engaged in the everyday activity of scrolling through her phone. The ordinariness of the subject’s pose offers a striking counter-narrative to prevailing assumptions about what public art should look like, which have been the center of debate in the UK in recent months following widespread protests over controversial monuments. 

Unlike traditional monuments that have historically depicted white men, Reaching Out has no plinth, which the artists tells Artnet News is intended as a “critique the notion of portraiture and monumentalism, as well as the value systems they reinforce within society.”

Thomas J Price working on the model for Reaching Out. Photo by Adam Kaleta.

Thomas J Price working on the model for Reaching Out. Photo by Adam Kaleta.

Price says it was important that the figure be anonymous, so he amalgamated different sitters to create the work rather, than model it off a specific person.

“For me it’s always been essential that the ‘characters’ depicted in my figurative works are fictional constructs, created from various sources in order to place the focus on their psychological embodiment and underlying humanistic qualities, instead of the ‘individual achievement and exceptionalism,’” Price says.

The artist, whose work was included in Frieze Sculpture in 2017, is best known for his sculptures of anonymous Black male figures. This is his first large-scale work depicting a woman. According to his research, only two other public works in London depict Black women: a mother-and-child work made in 2008 and installed in Stockwell, and another piece at St Thomas’s Hospital, made in 2016. 

Price’s nine-foot-tall sculpture, which is located near Stratford at Three Mills Green, was commissioned to mark the fifth anniversary of the Line, a free public art walk in London that follows three miles of the Greenwich Meridian and passes through three of the most diverse boroughs in the UK.

Thomas J Price's sculpture Reaching Out. Photo by Jeff Moore.

Thomas J Price’s sculpture Reaching Out. Photo by Jeff Moore.

The unveiling comes at a time when the UK is in the midst of a reckoning with its public monuments. Following calls—and in some places, direct action—to tear down controversial monuments, the government has set up a commission to review the diversity of the UK’s public artworks. In a statement, the director of the Line, Megan Piper, said that Price’s sculpture feels “particularly pertinent” in the context of this long-overdue scrutiny of the lack of diversity in the public realm.

“London’s strength is its diversity yet many of our stories, our histories, and our communities are not reflected in our public realm,” London’s deputy mayor for culture, Justin Simmons, added in a statement.

Yet there are also debates about who precisely should make new public monuments, and Price was among those who were vocally critical of the artist Marc Quinn’s unsolicited sculpture of a Black Lives Matter protester, which he installed in Bristol to replace a felled monument to a slaver.

“If we cannot see the irony in taking down a statue of a slave owner, and replacing it with work by an artist whose ancestors have benefited from slavery, that’s an indication of even wider issues,” Price says. (Quinn’s sculpture was removed by the local council soon after it was installed).

Price says the he hopes his sculpture will “help bring awareness of the importance of nuanced representation, allowing Black people to feel truly visible and their experiences valued, whilst at the same time creating a sense of familiarity across wider society that could serve to increase our capacity for shared empathy.”

Thomas J Price's sculpture <i>Reaching Out</i>. Photo by Jeff Moore.

Thomas J Price’s sculpture Reaching Out. Photo by Jeff Moore.

This is not the artist’s only public commission this year. Price has also been commissioned to create a new public sculpture for Hackney Town Hall commemorating the Windrush generation, whose members came to the UK from the Caribbean during the postwar period to help boost a depleted labor market.

It will be the first permanent public sculpture to celebrate this community, and Price’s work, as well as another by the artist Veronica Ryan, will be unveiled in 2021.

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