Who do we celebrate? Who do we memorialise? These questions loom large as cities around the world are forced to deal with the implications of their public monuments and memorials to people who have led problematic lives, often having flourished off the back of oppression. A recently unveiled work by artist Thomas J Price in London, though, addresses representation in a way that is both timely and critical.
Reaching Out was installed along The Line, a public walk dedicated to art in London, in Three Mills Green near Stratford. Standing nine feet tall, Reaching Out is hard to miss, she takes up space. Price aimed not to represent one specific woman with his work, but to create a woman capable of representing the Black “everywoman.”
The statue is far from the usual idea of a monument. The woman in Reaching Out is a conglomeration of various women, not one woman, as to not glorify one person’s triumphs. She doesn’t stand on a plinth, which, according to Price is meant as a “critique the notion of portraiture and monumentalism, as well as the value systems they reinforce within society.” Moreover, she isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary: she’s on her phone either reading a text, looking something up, skimming social media, or doing something else. She’s not smiling, she’s not engaging the viewer, which Price hopes highlights the fact that powerful people aren’t always the ones making the most noise. “Often the most powerful person in the room is the person in the background, or fiddling, or not sitting bolt upright smiling,” he told The Guardian.
Reaching Out joins the ranks of very few sculptures representing Black women in the UK, with only two others in London – a 2008 sculpture representing Black motherhood found in Stockwell and a sculpture of nurse Mary Seacole, which was unveiled in central London in 2016 and became the first statue of a named Black woman in the UK. In addition to being relatable, Reaching Out is made more important because unlike other public sculptures of Black women in the UK, she was created by a Black artist, a topic which ruffled feathers when Marc Quinn put up his rogue statue of a Black Lives Matter protester in Bristol, which Price called a “complete Stunt.”
The unveiling of Reaching Out was “particularly pertinent” according to Megan Piper, director of The Line, as the UK, and London in particular, works through how to address public statues and controversial monuments, a topic rejuvenated in the wake of BLM protests. “London’s strength is its diversity yet many of our stories, our histories, and our communities are not reflected in our public realm,” said Justin Simmons, deputy mayor for culture for London, in a statement.
For Price, he hopes Reaching Out brings “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.”
Earlier this year, it was announced that Price, alongside artist Veronica Ryan, was commissioned to create a statue to commemorate the Windrush Generation that will be placed outside of Hackney town hall. This will be the first public and permanent artwork dedicated to Windrush and is expected to be unveiled next year.