Windrush artwork in Hackney is a worthy legacy

Dave Kellaway reviews the latest piece of public art to appear on the streets of London.


I remember when my partner first migrated from Italy, her friends and relatives would always bring Mediterranean figs, hazelnuts or almonds across with them when visiting. For people who have left their home country behind such foods provide a visceral link with their home – the smell, the taste, the colour and texture. They were always appreciated much more than any expensive gift. Once you are established in another country you try to find places to get regular quality supplies of these products. Once a migrant community reaches any sort of size then you can buy them in the local shops – often run by fellow migrants. As time goes on the pre-established population acquires a taste for these goods and you can begin to buy them in your local supermarket. The foods express the link between the old home and the new as well as reflect the embedding of new communities and the benefits of more global cuisine for today’s multicultural population.

Labour-led Hackney Council took the initiative to honour the ‘legacy and contribution’ of the Windrush Caribbean generation to the borough by commissioning public artworks. In some way, it is giving back respect and also a political response to the shameful and callous way that the British government has treated those migrants. Hundreds who have been here since they were encouraged to come over to work in the NHS or the Underground in the 1950s were deported. Using pretexts such as failure to have the correct official papers they have been hounded and put under untold stress. A number have died before receiving any compensation. The Home Office is operating the reparation process at a snail’s pace.

But is the artwork any good? Our public spaces are littered with examples of publicly commissioned works that frankly are not very good. I think this is one piece of public art that really does work well.

The concept works brilliantly. This link between here and there as well as the legacy of the Caribbean community is simply and immediately communicated by the large, solid fruit sculptures. The best art often has an immediate impact but then makes you think about the story behind the objects. Certainly, local people from the Caribbean will identify straightaway with the fruit and most other people in the community will have seen at least one or other of the fruits in the local shops or supermarkets. In fact, there are two fruit and veg stalls just 50 metres away that have some of the fruits on sale.

Location is crucial when displaying public art

Location of public works of art is crucial. For example, shoving something in the middle of a traffic island or high up on the side of a building does not always facilitate access and real visibility. Here, as you can see in the photo above, it is placed in the centre of Hackney next to the historic parish church, the original town hall, Hackney Central Overground station, Primark, M&S and McDonalds. A lot of people in Hackney will get to see it. It is placed in a pedestrianised area not far from the outside tables of the new pub that inhabits the old town hall. People can come up and touch the sculptures, sit on them and take selfies. The other day I saw a mum taking a selfie of her son dressed up as an astronaut on one of the fruits. Veronica Ryan, the sculptor, wants people to regard them as family and for children and adults to sit on them.

Monserrat born artist Veronica Ryan lived and worked here until 1990, now lives in New York.

Choosing to set up three fruits works well too, people often talk of the importance of the rule of 3 when delivering a speech. Three is certainly significant in Christian theology (the trinity) and mythology generally. It also provides a triangular or circular space so you can literally get into the middle of the artwork.  Balance and symmetry are produced in the way the artist has thought about the relative placement of the three objects.

Size and scale are important factors too in public art. Here it is about right. The fruits are not overwhelming for the social space nor are they so small as to not have any impact. It seems the fruit has taken on a human scale, you can stand over them and they are not much longer than someone stretched out.

The texture is important too, especially for public art that can be touched. As you can see in the pictures you go from the quite large but smooth undulations of the custard apple to the smoother smaller patterns of the custard apple and the more jagged ridges of the soursop. Each shape is different too, strawberry pear-like, more circular and then glandular.

Already the custard apple is looking a little grubby perhaps due to the number of people sitting on it or touching it so this may provide a maintenance challenge!

Variety is also provided by the colours. The bright whiteness of the custard apple is contrasted with the more restrained turquoise green of the breadfruit and the shinier darker green and black of the soursop.

This work fits into the artistic tradition of fruit as a symbol. Just think of the importance of the apple in medieval and renaissance paintings – the symbol of temptation as Adam and Eve consume it in the Garden of Eden.  Who can forget Billie Halliday or Nina Simone singing Strange Fruit about the lynching of Black people in the American South?  Fruit have often had that double meaning of pleasure and pain, of bitter and sweet. Maybe it is stretching our interpretation too far but many migrants experience both their dreams of improving their lives but at the same time tasting the sourness of discrimination and the gruelling work along the way.

Let’s finish with something the artist, Veronica Ryan said about her work:

“I used to come shopping with my mum in the Ridley Road Market. It’s about fruit and veg that’s about the local community, the local diet. I chose this particular group because I liked the textures. I wanted them to be interesting to engage with, they are not the same surface textures as well.”

From Hackney Citizen, October 2021

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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