Hackney’s Windrush legacy

By Cllr Carole Williams | 28 July 2020

Hackney LBC became the first UK local authority to pass a motion regarding the Windrush Generation. This means we pledge to oppose the criminalisation of Windrush families, celebrate annual Windrush Day and press central Government for justice for those affected by the scandal. This work comes as second nature to the home of one of the largest black British communities in the UK, and through celebration and support, we can build on the self-esteem of a community so often marginalised.

The artworks of our winning world-renowned artists Thomas J Price and Veronica Ryan provide a beacon of positive representation. Ryan’s brass fruit sculptures represent the positive and healthy affirmations in ode to migrants who have made Hackney their home and were inspired by her childhood trips to our famous Ridley Road Market. Price’s work will see large statues placed in the Town Hall Square and will use artefacts from Hackney Archives and observations of current residents, to inform their appearance to draw the viewer into a dialogue with themselves and those around them.

The weight and responsibility of this project were always felt, and throughout the process we engaged with the right and relevant parties. With the support of The Genesis Foundation, our cultural development team set up a panel including councillors, residents, Windrush campaigners, artists and architects. It was chaired by the esteemed director of Autograph Gallery in Shoreditch Dr Mark Sealy, with Hackney LBC as the commissioner and Create London as the producers. The panel then invited leading curators to nominate artists, resulting in a shortlist of six artists of national significance with Caribbean heritage.

The work was to be a local accessible landmark of national significance, while affirming ‘Hackney’s commitment to standing up against all forms of prejudice and inspiring empathy and compassion’ and at the same time encouraging visitors to ‘respect and embrace difference.’ We applied a democratic approach to deciding on which artists to choose, and garnered valuable feedback from across the borough.

It was always our intention to place the winning commissions in the heart of the community and in an accessible public place. By 2021, they will be an integral part of the fabric of our daily civic life.

Providing a space for the visionary work of Veronica Ryan and Thomas J Price helps us to demonstrate how much we value the role arts and culture play in expressing our identity and interpreting this essential part of our migrant history.

The two very different pieces of art, from two different generations, is also something we relish. Three years ago, when we set out to commission a new public artwork, we could not have predicted the coronavirus pandemic and the disproportionate impact it would have on ethnic minority communities. Nor could we have predicted what has been described in some quarters as a modern-day lynching of George Floyd. These two events in quick succession and the public outcry that reverberated across the world have added a significance to the need for public art that reflects, commemorates and pays tribute to the contribution migrant communities make to life in the borough.

Like many local councils across the country, we responded positively to calls to review statues and place names where they hark back to Britain’s colonial past and we have been working in partnership with residents to do just that. Our commitments are uncompromising. Now we will have two pieces of public artworks that will act as a permanent reminder to everyone who walks past – including our political leaders of today and tomorrow – how our Windrush generation has enriched Britain.

We hope our Windrush commission inspires other local authorities to help tip the balance of a more representational parade of artists and embrace the importance of artistic expression. With our arts sector at risk under the threat of COVID-19, we hope it demonstrates the importance of supporting our arts and culture sector from the grassroots to the ‘crown jewels’.

At the time of writing, specifics were yet to be announced as to how the £1.57bn arts support package will be shared. What it provides in hope, it lacks in detail and work now rests on ensuring independent artists and smaller organisations are the beneficiaries alongside the national treasures of the art world. Hackney is the creative heart of London and our arts and cultural institutions provide life, soul and opportunity. The gratifications go far beyond entertainment – they are in the veins of our economy and support our mental wellbeing. In the case of our Windrush artwork commission, it’s a symbol of how we tell our story and build our proud identity.

Cllr Carole Williams is Hackney LBC’s cabinet member for employment, skills and human resources

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