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What makes a real Birmingham family? Public artwork in the city’s Centenary Square

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

In 2013 the new Library of Birmingham (UK) was opened to great fanfare by Nobel Peace prize laureate Malala Yousafza, in her adopted hometown. A year later, standing proudly in front, a bronze statue was unveiled - A Real Birmingham Family.

A Real Birmingham Family statue, Centenary Square, Birmingham
A Real Birmingham Family by Gillian Wearing

Created by Birmingham born Turner Prize winning artist, Gillian Wearing, the artwork sought to explore a modern understanding of family as well as civic identity in Birmingham.

Wearing had completed a similar project in Trentino, Italy but in this partnership with the city’s Ikon gallery, she wanted the definition of family to be more flexible and beyond being necessarily statistically ‘typical’. Families were invited to put themselves forward for the artwork and nearly 400 did. It was open to all, including foster families, groups of friends and even single person households.

The chosen family was sisters Roma and Emma Jones and their sons Shaye and Kyan (as well as one on the way, baby Isaac). The sisters, both multiethnic single parents, demonstrated strong family bonds and mutual support, as well as a deep connection to the city. This impressed the project organisers and led to them being immortalised in bronze. A decision not without some controversy - New Fathers 4 Justice objected to the lack of any father figure.

The form of the artwork itself is relaxed and engaging and the family bond is clearly evident. It strikes quite a contrast to other public art in the square - the statue of Edward VII and the better known ‘Golden Boys’ statue of the famous 18th century figures Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch.

Golden Boys statue, Centenary Square, Birmingham
'The Golden Boys' by William Bloye

Affectionately known locally as ‘the carpet salesmen’, the pose of the three industrialists is also seemingly capturing them in a moment. But, whilst their position on a high plinth, larger than life size and glittering gold, makes for an impressive sight, it also adds distance, both real and metaphorical, for the viewer.

When walking the city I regularly see people taking photos of the Golden Boys, which is great - they make for excellent pictures. I see fewer people around Roma, Emma and their boys. Despite being in the centre of Centenary Square, they’re almost lost in the large space - they don’t stand high, glittering in the sun, you have to walk up to them. Once you do that though, it makes for a more engaging and personal experience - just look at that pregnancy bump and the change in colour where people have placed their hands. When people take pictures of this family they often add themselves in - standing next to one of the sisters or behind the boys. What a fantastic way of extending this family to one which can connect us all. This is only possible because they’re at ground level and life size.

Whilst this family hasn’t changed Birmingham’s history in the way Matthew Boulton and his chums did (well, not yet at least, who knows what those boys may go on to do), my tour guests enjoy hearing the story and engaging with the sculpture. As I take them through the square it provides a great contrast to the other public artworks.

Families are many and varied but the love that binds most families is evident in this artwork. That it has become a public family and one with which we can all connect, makes this artwork successful in an unusual way and adds to the interest that can be found when strolling through Birmingham’s streets and squares.

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