Users of London’s Waterloo station are used to waiting – for friends, lovers and delayed trains. But for Jamaican sculptor Basil Watson the wait is over: on 15 October he was announced as the winner of the competition to create the Windrush Monument.
The monument is a belated tribute – a rather shamefaced public apology, in fact – to the endeavours, tribulations and sacrifices of the Windrush Generation. That’s the name given to the migrants who came from the Caribbean on troopship Empire Windrush in 1948 and those who followed by sea and air in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
The challenges they faced in the bad old days of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, National Front thuggery and endemic racism were made worse by the Home Office’s extraordinary insistence that many people of Caribbean origin who had spent their entire working lives in the UK were not actually British citizens at all. Their story has been well told by Amelia Gentleman in The Windrush Betrayal; it’s a book that’s guaranteed to make the reader’s blood boil. The government – and particularly the Home Office – has a lot to be shamefaced and apologetic about.
Watson’s sculpture depicts a family of three ascending a pile of suitcases – a reference to their journey, of course, but also their aspirations for upward mobility, which were achieved through hard work.
Its intended location – a rarely visited part of Waterloo station’s mezzanine floor – comes with its own baggage of controversy.
The Windrush Commemoration Committee presided over by Baroness Benjamin has been accused of being high-handed, opaque in its decision-making and failing to listen to the community – not least by choosing the terminus as the site for the monument. Many campaigners (including the well-established and respected Windrush Foundation) thought Windrush Square in Brixton, next to the Black Cultural Archives, would have been a more appropriate location.
The controversies should not be allowed to detract from Watson’s design. It is a worthy winner, and arguably the most effective entry for the chosen space. (Jeannette Ehlers’ moko jumbies were very appealing too, but might work better in an outdoor location – perhaps striding over Powis Square?)
On hearing the news, Watson said: “I feel privileged that I now have this opportunity to express the aspirations, vision and courage of my parents, who took the long sea voyage to England in 1952. I look forward to bringing my design to life, because I know how much this means to the Windrush community.”
Watson was born in Jamaica in 1958 and is considered to be the country’s leading sculptor. Many of his works are displayed at sports stadia and university campuses. They include full-length sculptures of athletes such as Merlene Ottey and Usain Bolt, while his statue of Martin Luther King stands in Atlanta, Georgia (he moved to the USA in 2002).
On his website, Watson states: “I am inspired by the heroic in mankind, and am moved to express the vitality, beauty, grace and strength of the human figure in its varied shapes, sizes, abilities and functions. The spirit that motivates it is limitless in its grandeur.”
Watson’s vision for Waterloo will be realised on Windrush Day, 22 June 2022.