A new public sculpture commemorating the Windrush generation was unveiled in east London on Wednesday morning to smiles and curiosity. Warm Shores by Thomas J Price, a 9ft (2.75 meters) bronze of a man and a woman standing outside Hackney town tall, marks the full installation of the Hackney Windrush Art Commission, a project celebrating the contribution made by those who have immigrated to the area. “It’s not a monument, it’s a celebration,” said Price, looking on as residents began to interact with the work.
In an era where public art and monuments are politically charged like never before, surely the test of a great public artwork is in the community response. As locals passed the sculpture they reacted warmly, looking at the two figures, touching them, some asking “What does this represent? Is this for me? ” Although Price’s sculpture and Basil Watson’s official national monument at Waterloo were both unveiled today to salute the generation which came from the Caribbean to the UK between 1948 and 1970, those affected by the Windrush scandal are still fighting for compensation.
Until recently, Price, a 41-year-old artist from London, has enjoyed more success in the US than in the UK for his often larger than life sculptures of Black everymen and everywomen. They are not sculptures of specific individuals, but have been created through composites of many faces and figures. Their power lies in their ordinariness – they might be staring into space or studying a smartphone – and as works of art they are intended to raise questions about who we give public space to and why.
For this commission, Price has used images of 30 residents of Hackney, a borough with one of the largest Black communities in the country. Following an open call to members of the Windrush generation and their descendants, all those who came forward were digitally captured and interviewed. While the work is composed of two figures – a young man and an older woman – they represent a whole generation, not just in their actuality but in their stance, their features, their clothes, and every part of their physical appearance.
It was impossible not to be moved by seeing those who participated in the making of Warm Shores see the work for the first time. There were some tears but the atmosphere was joyous, with a touch of happy disbelief. Even Price seemed overcome by the enormity of the occasion. “It’s taken so much to get here,” he said. “It’s incredible, in terms of what I wanted my practice to move towards and achieve. To have a council commission feels surreal and gives me hope that people are starting to come around to discussions about the awareness of how we see each other and who is given space to just exist as human beings. ”
In the argument about the pulling down of statues of oppressive figures in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, some people said that they wanted to feel represented by the monuments that stood around them. Warm Shores, which stands with a corresponding work by Veronica Ryan, which earned her a Turner prize nomination when it was unveiled last year, is an example of how to install public art in 2022. Is it possible to commission politically relevant contemporary art and represent the community it stands in? Warm Shores proves that it is.