One of the key advantages of living in London, that far outweigh its well-documented costliness and environmental downsides, is the opportunity to view internationally outward-facing public works of art that have the power to generate significant cultural ripple effects and transcend their physical display settings. The most recent major art commission to trigger this type of global media attention and mainstream public discussion is Basil Watson’s beautiful figurative sculpture of a father, mother and child of African-Caribbean descent, unveiled at Waterloo Station in the capital on 22 June 2022 as the UK’s National Windrush Monument.
The public launch took place on a day officially designated in the UK as “Windrush Day.” This annual occasion commemorates the arrival of the Empire Windrush passenger ship at Tilbury docks in June 1948, and marks an important migration journey within the broader dynamics and continuities of West Indians being encouraged to settle and work in the UK at the invitation of the British government – a movement that also included the return of many former armed forces and auxiliary services personnel who had served in Europe during the Second World War. In the decades since this era, the date is now recognised as symbolising a pivotal moment in the chronology of flows and interdependencies linking the islands, nations and peoples of the Caribbean region to the British Isles over many centuries. This wider framing relates specifically to histories of Empire; to the UK’s imperialist past, undergirded by the brutalities and traumas of human trafficking throughout the Atlantic world, plantation enslavement, and colonial exploitation; and to the re-calibrated, post-colonial alignments of the 20th century, articulated via the Commonwealth. Additionally, this date in the cultural calendar, and the presence of a new monument commemorating Caribbean migration histories at the heart of one of London’s busiest rail terminals, opens up opportunities to continually acknowledge the multiple and cumulative contributions to British cultural life and society advanced and influenced by people of colour with Caribbean heritage – not only in relation to the individuals and families who arrived as part of the Windrush generation, but also to their forebears and to successive descendants of Caribbean diasporans born in the UK: positively influencing and adding value to artistic, linguistic, scientific, technological, literary, socio-economic, faith-related, political and legislative spheres and sectors with/in multicultural Britain.
About the Artist: Basil Watson, CD
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1958, Basil Watson is an internationally acclaimed contemporary visual artist, whose portfolio of major commissions rendered in bronze includes representations of the African American civil rights leaders Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator John Lewis, and two of Jamaica’s most celebrated Olympic athletes, Merlene Ottey and Usain Bolt.
Notably, in 2016 Basil Watson was awarded the Order of Distinction (Commander Class) by the Jamaican government in recognition of his contributions to the visual arts and heritage education over many decades.
The artist’s sculptural composition was selected from a shortlist of four proposals considered by members of the Windrush Commemoration Committee (WCC). The other creative ideas under review were contemporary art proposals and macquettes submitted by the following three Caribbean diasporans: Danish-Trinidadian multi-media installationist Jeannette Ehlers; Bristol-based figurative artist Valda Jackson; and London born interdisciplinary artist, sculptor and RCA alum Thomas J. Price.
Poetic Interpretation: “You Called…And We Came,” by Professor Laura Serrant OBE, Ph.D.
An integral element of the interpretation literature positioned alongside the sculpture is the text of a poem, originally written in 2017 by Professor Laura Serrant OBE, Ph.D, titled “You Called…And We Came.” The succinct, respectful narrative aptly foregrounds and emphasises that Windrush generation arrivants responded positively to a series of government-led invitations and recruitment drives – particularly requests linked to employment in the UK’s National Health Service – calling out to people considered British Empire ‘subjects’ to contribute to the post-war reconstruction of the so-called ‘motherland.’ The lines make very clear that an anticipation of welcome, and a sense of ‘home-coming’ were relevant expectations to have imagined at that time, thus catalysing dreams of better days ahead than the poverty, deprivation and lack of opportunities many faced in the Caribbean region as a direct impact of generations of British colonial exploitation and imperialist racism. The recent controvercies of the Windrush scandal (first uncovered in 2018, but relating to decades of discriminatory UK immigration policies and wrongful deportations), perpetrated by the Home Office under the direction of successive Tory Secretaries of State, also spotlight the need to keep these moving Winrush era histories within collective public consciousness. So, artistic re-expressions of Windrush pioneers’ lived experiences and aspirations, presented in verse and in sculptural form at this moment are both timely and apposite. The poem’s powerful opening and concluding words are detailed below:
“You called…and we came.
In ships bigger than anything we had seen,
dwarfing our islands and covering them
in the shadows of smoke and noise.
Crowded, excited voices filled the air,
travelling to the ‘motherland’…
…In our presence and our contribution:
Not only the hopes and dreams of our ancestors.
– Human values needed to truly lead change…and add value.
Remember… you called.
Remember… you called
Remember, it was us, who came.”
– Professor Laura Serrant, OBE, Ph.D.
A catalyst for future monuments?
Looking forward, the Chair of the Windrush Commemoration Committee (WCC) – Trinidadian-British broadcaster, author and Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Floella Benjamin DBE – expressed her aspiration for the sculpture, stating:
“I hope it will be the catalyst for other monuments commemorating the extraordinary contribution of the Windrush generation to this country.”– Baroness Floella Benjamin DBE