1. A group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit.
2. All the descendants of a common ancestor.
3. A group of related things.
But in today’s society are any of these definitions particularly accurate?
In Birmingham, a new and highly controversial artwork seeks not only to pin-down the notion of family, but to immortalise it in the minds of the local populace. A Real Birmingham Family – located outside the multimillion pound Library of Birmingham in the city centre – is a bronze sculpture of the Jones family and the result of a four-year collaboration between local gallery, Ikon and former Turner Prize winner, Gillian Wearing.
In the summer of 2013, after a call for nominations was first announced by Ikon in 2011, the Jones family were selected by a panel of nine, including the artist, to become the “face of Birmingham”. But what makes Roma and Emma Jones – two mixed-race, single-parent sisters – and their sons Kyan and Shaye, stand out from the 371 other families who were nominated? And in what way is their unit a fair depiction of what is ‘real’ in 21st Century Birmingham?
If you were being particularly critical, you could say that the whole concept was flawed from the outset: in attempting to isolate one particular group of people and proclaiming that to be ‘A Real Birmingham Family’, the project could be seen to be alienating the hundreds of other incarnations a typical Birmingham family could take. Wearing says that “what constitutes a family should not be fixed” and yet the act of choosing one family over another and then preserving the image of that family in a bronze sculpture seems undoubtedly to be fixing that image, doesn’t it? In a city that has the second highest population in the country and is known for its cultural diversity, surely there is no one-size-fits-all approach to family in Birmingham?
However, this sculpture does not claim to be representative; it is not The Real Birmingham Family, but A Real Birmingham Family and that has to be the most important element of this piece. Neither Ikon nor Wearing have set out to find a ‘typical family’, but have instead sought to highlight the idea that family in Birmingham is almost exclusively ‘atypical’. The Jones family, therefore, chosen in part because they meet certain criteria (multiple generations, friendship, diversity, evidential links to the city etc.), are a symbol of what family actually is rather than what a family looks like.
“I really liked how Roma and Emma Jones spoke of their closeness as sisters and how they supported each other. It seemed a very strong bond, one of friendship and family, and the sculpture puts across that connectedness between them.” – Gillian Wearing
In my opinion, there is not only beautiful symmetry in this piece, but also a pleasing sense of progression; Emma’s swollen stomach is surely a nod to the future, to a Jones family that could be completely different in twenty years’ time to the one we see today.
“We feel truly amazed and honoured to be chosen to represent what it means to be a family in Birmingham. We feel it highlights that family is an indestructible bond between people that is universal and it doesn’t matter how it is made up or what it looks like.” – The Jones family
So in considering the Oxford Dictionary’s definitions of family, it has to be said that whilst Roma, Emma, Kyan and Shaye could possibly wiggle themselves into all of the above boxes, it is clear by the sheer diversity of the families nominated for the sculpture, including The Stirchley Family (the stallholders of Stirchley Community Market) and the Hancox /Treadwell Family (two separate, formerly neighbouring families), that these definitions aren’t as applicable as they once were and perhaps, if another definition were ever to be added, it should be (in the words of the Jones family): an indestructible bond between people.
- For more information visit Ikon Gallery.
- A Real Birmingham Family can be found in Centenary Square, Birmingham.