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Thomas J Price
Thomas J Pricevia Hackney Council

Hackney Council commissions two public artworks to commemorate Windrush

Artists Veronica Ryan and Thomas J Price will see their artworks unveiled in 2021

Hackney Council has announced the commission of two new sculptures to stand outside its town hall in east London. The artworks, to be installed in 2021, will be created by artists Thomas J Price and Veronica Ryan and will be the first permanent works of civic art to commemorate the Windrush generation. 

The news coincided with yesterday’s Windrush Day and the ongoing national debate about the presence of problematic public monuments to contentious historical figures. Philip Glanville, Mayor of Hackney, told The Guardian that the sculptures will be a “real statement of pride for the Windrush generation and their descendants in the borough.”

Ryan, who now lives in New York but who grew up in the area, retains vivid memories of Hackney markets with her mother and the vibrant produce for sales on the stalls. She’s creating a series of bronze and marble sculptures representing fruit and vegetables, inspired by her vivid childhood memories of visiting Ridley Road with her mother. “The movement of fruit and vegetables across the globe historically exemplifies the way people have been part of that movement,” she told The Guardian. “Many fruit and vegetables have their origins in Asia, and Africa. The perception of origins, and belonging to specific places is an extended part of the conversation.”

Price, who’s known for making work that engages ideas of representation and perception, is creating a 9ft bronze figure using photo archives and digital 3D scans of Hackney residents. The artist, who also has long ties with Hackney, describes his figurative sculptures as “experiments in empathy”. 

We spoke to Thomas J Price about civic space, challenging existing historical narratives, and reappropriating power.

Can you share your thoughts on the importance of Hackney Council commissioning these two statues?

Thomas J Price: Looking at events in the world today, who is seen to be praised and held up as embodying the characteristics we value in society has possibly never been so important. Hackney Council was aware of the power of representation long before statues started making the news and I think it deserve a lot of credit for pushing to commission public sculpture to celebrate the contribution of the Windrush generation and their descendants.

I feel incredibly honoured to have the opportunity to make a lasting statement about the immense contribution Windrush has made to the country, by creating a physical beacon that speaks to the visibility and value of the Windrush generation in a way that places emphasis on their humanity. After the distress caused – and still being experienced – by the Windrush Scandal, this seems like a very necessary part of developing a wider social awareness of these issues.

You will be creating a large-scale bronze sculpture, from photo archives, observations, and digital 3D scans of Hackney residents. Can you speak about what you hope the statue will represent? Will it have a message?

Thomas J Price: My first fictional characters were about trying to create a believable psychological presence to draw the viewer into a kind of dialogue with themselves about who the character is and what they might be thinking. They were like experiments in empathy, using material, scale and physiognomy to make the viewer contemplate the way they process their social interactions and the attitudes that inform that process.

By creating a 9ft bronze sculpture of a black person my intention is to connect a section of society who have been undervalued and under-represented to the traditional materials of power, whilst not conforming to the expectations of their depiction in such a medium. The figure is not of a famous, or historic individual, they will not be posed triumphantly, or heroically and they will not be dressed in the costume of power. The figure will bring all the intrinsic value and high status with them via it’s naturalism and resistance to the normal tropes of the monument, whilst still making a bold statement via its scale and the space it unapologetically occupies – a radical act for any ‘black body’.

Why have you chosen to use these materials and methods?

Thomas J Price: My first ‘figurative’ sculpture was a small head made of plaster that was a comment on the normal large marble heads seen in museums, based on ancient Greek statues. I began to use bronze because it is so linked to ideas of power and I wanted to use that understanding to make people question their assumptions about the social status of the people I depict, especially in my outdoor sculptures.

I used to only use cut-out images and handwritten notes or sketches of people I’d observed as reference for my clay sculptures, but I’ve slowly incorporated computer modelling – what I refer to as ‘digital clay’ – and, later, 3D scanning to help capture many more references for clothing and body types. It’s become a much more complex blend of methods, but I think it’s expanded the possibilities of my practice.

“I feel incredibly honoured to have the opportunity to make a lasting statement about the immense contribution Windrush has made to the country” – Thomas J Price

How does this commission relate to your wider body of work?

Thomas J Price: I’ve probably covered a lot of that in my answers above, but I will say that when I was invited to submit a proposal for the Hackney Windrush Commission I did think that it was a perfect fit for my practice, especially in terms of presenting images of fictional black people in order to critique monuments, power structures, and the values of society. 

With debates raging about what should be done with racists monuments and statues, what would you like the government to do?

Thomas J Price: I really think that it’s important that the government makes some brave moves to show, in real terms, through its actions, that it recognises the inequality that built the wealth of the UK. It needs to prove that it has genuine compassion and empathy for those who have been disadvantaged by that legacy and that it is serious about wanting to create a fair and inclusive society.

For this to happen I think that there needs to be a ground-up rethink of the educational curriculum to cover the real story of the British Empire, as well as the contributions of non-white people to the success of the UK. There needs to be a case-by-case appraisal of statues in the public realm, which will lead to many being removed. Some can be contextualised in museums, but I don’t see why others can’t simply be put into storage. I think Black and POC artists should be the first to be contacted about replacing statues of slave owners, as it shouldn’t be yet another opportunity for white artists to compound their social advantage.