Centenary Square's controversial Family statue returns in £15 million reboot

Centenary Square’s controversial Family statue returns in £15 million reboot

A controversial £150,000 statue has been returned to Centenary Square – almost two years after it was removed and put into storage for safekeeping.

And this time it won’t be surrounded by a mudbath every time it rains thanks to the square’s new hard surfaces which reflect the dazzling sunshine back into the air.

When A Real Birmingham Family was unveiled in October 2014 it was placed in the middle of a lawn outside the front of the Library of Birmingham.

But the grass soon turned muddy after visitors moved in for a closer look.

A Real Birmingham Family (2014) is back in Centenary Square

The statue was removed in the late spring of 2017 to facilitate the rebuilding of the original Centenary Square (1991).

The £10 million project has overrun and the square will be a year behind schedule when it opens this summer, with costs expected to have risen to more than £15.5 million by the time it is completed.

In rough figures, when A Real Birmingham Family was removed the statue had cost £4,500 per month, £1,100 per week or £150 per day for the period it had been on show.

You can see the latest pictures of how Centenary Square is looking today in the gallery here:

Work is expected to be completed by July, 2019.

The Ikon Gallery commissioned the A Real Birmingham Family statue, but it is owned by Birmingham City Council.

When the original Centenary Square was opened in 1991, Raymond Mason’s fibre glass Forward statue was its unmistakable centrepiece, showcasing the city’s industrial industry on a giant scale.

But it was torched on April 17, 2003 and literally melted away.

 

The Forward Statue after being torched in 2003
The Forward Statue after being torched in 2003

What is the sculpture of A Real Birmingham Family?

Funded with money raised by the Ikon Gallery, the idea for a new sculpture was not to honour the city’s engineering or manufacturing heritage, but to use a ‘real family’ to illustrate Birmingham’s ‘cultural diversity’.

More than 350 self-nominated entrants put themselves forward in a bid to become the subjects of the work which was created by 1997 Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing.

 

The finished piece depicted a pregnant Emma Jones, 27, and her sister Roma, 29, with children Kyan, four, and Shaye, five.

A Real Birmingham Family (2014) is back in Centenary Square - view towards Broad Street and the new HSBC UK HQ
A Real Birmingham Family (2014) is back in Centenary Square – view towards Broad Street and the new HSBC UK HQ

Ikon Gallery curator Stuart Tulloch, said: “It was a unanimous decision that the Jones family become the subject of the sculpture.

“Their story is compelling and says much about contemporary Birmingham – two mixed-race sisters, with happy, lively young boys, who identify themselves strongly with the city of their birth.”

 

Former Tory party spin doctor Amanda Platell was less impressed, writing: “To claim that they represent a typical family is crass, misleading and deeply cynical.”

A Real Birmingham Family (2014) is back in Centenary Square - view towards Broad Street and the new HSBC UK HQ
A Real Birmingham Family (2014) is back in Centenary Square – view towards Broad Street and the new HSBC UK HQ

Within two days of the statue being unveiled, 32-year-old Fathers for Justice campaigner Bobby Smith stuck photos of himself and his two young daughters on the artwork and he also threw a sheet over the other mother.

“They’ve depicted the normal family with no fathers,” he said.

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“This is a statue that is potentially going to be around for hundreds of years and it’s not a great thing to show young people.”

A Real Birmingham Family (2014) is back in Centenary Square
View towards Symphony Hall and Birmingham Rep, with A Real Birmingham Family (2014) back in Centenary Square

The Jones sisters themselves said in a statement: “Being mixed race, we feel at home here as it’s so diverse and multicultural.

“As a result, we believe the mixed-race population in Brum will only increase.

 

“We feel truly amazed and honoured to be chosen to represent what it means to be a family in Birmingham.”

View from behind a fence: A Real Birmingham Family (2014)
View from behind a fence: A Real Birmingham Family (2014)

Statue timeline

The Library of Birmingham itself was opened on September 3, 2013 by shot Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai.

Just three weeks before the Family statue made its public bow, Malala returned to the library on October 10, 2014 to make a speech on the day she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Family statue was then unveiled on October 30, 2014.

October 10, 2014: Education campaigner Malala Yousafzai speaks at a press conference held at the Library of Birmingham, after she became the youngest person to win a Nobel prize
October 10, 2014: Education campaigner Malala Yousafzai speaks at a press conference held at the Library of Birmingham, after she became the youngest person to win a Nobel prize

Once the inevitable controversy about the statue had died had down, that seemed to be that – until it was suddenly removed just 32 months later and nobody was able to confirm when or where it would be repositioned.

It was returned to its previous position in the square just before the Easter holidays.

 

This means the statue will once again have its back towards the Library of Birmingham.

The view towards Broad Street has now changed.

The Midland Metro tram should be running by the end of the year while the new HSBC UK HQhas been sandwiched in between the Alpha Tower and the former Municipal Bank, itself now under redevelopment by the University of Birmingham.

October 30, 2014: 'A Real Birmingham Family' statue unveiled outside the Library of Birmingham by the Jones family and Gisela Stuart MP
October 30, 2014: ‘A Real Birmingham Family’ statue unveiled outside the Library of Birmingham by the Jones family and Gisela Stuart MP

As well as a year-round public programme, the former bank will retain its famous vaults.

It will also help to incubate new businesses as well as offering a Leadership Institute and a ‘range of collaborative working spaces for research and policy development’.

Meanwhile, because of financial cutbacks the £188 million Library of Birmingham does not open until 11am from Monday to Saturday – and it’s closed all day on Sundays.

 

And, although the library is open until 7pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, from Wednesday to Saturday its doors are closed at 5pm.

Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing at the unveiling of the new statue at the Library of Birmingham
Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing at the unveiling of the new statue at the Library of Birmingham

Who is Gillian Wearing?

Ms Wearing won the Turner Prize in 1997 for video 60 minutes of Silence, which featured actors dressed in police uniforms having to stand still for an hour.

The Birmingham-born artist was awarded a CBE in the 2019 New Year’s Honours List and her statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett stands in London’s Parliament Square.

 

The former Dartmouth High School, Great Barr pupil said of A Real Birmingham Family: “A nuclear family is one reality but it is one of many.

Roma Jones (left) with her sister Emma standing beside Gillian Wearing's bronze sculpture of their likeness
Roma Jones (left) with her sister Emma standing beside Gillian Wearing’s bronze sculpture of their likeness

“This work celebrates the idea that what constitutes a family should not be fixed.”

+ There is a similar bronze sculpture at the Moss Bros end of Mell Square, Solihull.

Commissioned by Norwich Union Insurance Group, it was sculpted by John Ravera F.R.B.S in 1985 and depicts mum and dad with a young child.

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