At 9ft tall and weighing 420 kilograms, she is impossible to miss but she is also strikingly ordinary – an antidote, the artist hopes, to chest-puffing and hero worship.
Sculptor Thomas J Price on Wednesday unveiled a public statue of a black everywoman. Like most of the rest of the world, she is on her phone. The artwork is called Reaching Out but the question remains, is it the viewer doing the reaching or the woman?
The work is deliberately not based on any particular woman. “I want this sculpture to be an opportunity for people to connect emotionally with an image of someone they might not have noticed before,” Price said.
“It is also about people being able to recognise themselves, or people they know.”
Price said the aim was to create something very familiar that challenged “all this grand triumphant sculpture” we normally see. “Often the most powerful person in the room is the person in the background, or fiddling, or not sitting bolt upright smiling.”
The sculpture has been installed at Three Mills Green near Stratford, east London, and is part of The Line, the city’s only dedicated public art walk, which follows the Greenwich meridian.
It becomes one of only three public sculptures of black women in the UK, the others being Mary Seacole outside St Thomas’s hospital and a representation of black motherhood in Stockwell. Both were the work of white artists.
Reaching Out would have been the fourth if the artist Marc Quinn had succeeded in persuading authorities in Bristol to keep his sculpture of Jen Reid, the Black Lives Matter protester, on the plinth emptied when Edward Colston was toppled.
Price has been sharply critical of Quinn, calling it a “complete stunt”.
He said he was shocked but not surprised by how few public statues of black women there are in the UK. “It is an astounding statistic but I can believe it.”
The Black Lives Matter protests have prompted much debate about public art and the lack of representation. The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, has announced a commission, looking at statues and street names, to improve diversity.
The issue came up again this week when it emerged Tate Britain had amended references to its Rex Whistler restaurant, which contains Whistler’s 1927 mural The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats. It followed complaints about racist images in the mural including the enslavement of a black child and the distress of his mother.
Price, who was recently commissioned to create a statue for Hackney town hall to commemorate the Windrush generation, said Tate should consider painting over the mural. Or move the restaurant and use the space as a private room where people can go to explore the history of slavery.
“That mural needs to be recognised for what it is,” he said. “I just don’t think it is an excuse to say, ‘oh but it’s historical’.
“You have basically forced people to become complicit in the reinforcing of racist tropes and racist hierarchies, It is incredible that it hasn’t been picked up before, but perhaps there’s a positive – it shows how aware people have become of the things around them and we need this awareness in order to make any change, otherwise it is all lip service.
“Why are objects or paintings seen to be permanent? it is not the erasure of history it is thecreation of a new future.”