'Courage Calls To Courage Everywhere'
Gillian Wearing’s films, photographs and sculptures investigate public personas and private lives. Her statue of Millicent Fawcett, unveiled April 24th 2018, commemorates the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 through the Government’s national centenary fund.
Two years ago, nearly 85,000 signatories put their names to a petition started by Caroline Criado Perez to erect a statue of a woman in Parliament Square. Millicent Fawcett will be the first statue of — or by — a woman to stand in the historic London plaza, and it’s thanks to the thousands of people who pledged their support that she’ll be standing beside monuments to activists like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.
To mark the occasion, we've collaborated with Gillian and designer Bella Freud to launch a range of merchandise inspired by Millicent’s message and the ongoing fight for equality. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Fawcett Society, who have continued the work of their founder for more than 150 years in fighting for women’s rights and representation.
We spoke to Gillian about how the project came about, the process of collaborating with Bella, and the ongoing fight for women's equality.
The words ‘courage calls to courage everywhere’ are shortened from a sentence that Millicent wrote a few years after the death of Emily Davison who was hit by the King’s horse at Epsom Derby.
How did this project — creating a sculpture of Millicent Fawcett for Parliament Square — come about?
I was invited to submit an idea for a statue about women’s suffrage and then I was shortlisted and won the commission, which was fantastic.
Can you tell me about the words on the placard she’s holding?
The words ‘courage calls to courage everywhere’ are shortened from a sentence that Millicent wrote a few years after the death of Emily Davison who was hit by the King’s horse at Epsom Derby. Millicent believed in non-militant action and Emily, who was a Suffragette, believed in the opposite. The Suffragettes were part of a movement born out of the frustration that, even after decades of protests and petitions, women were still not being listened to. They believed that the only way forward was to create civil disobedience. By using this quote from Millicent, I am bringing the two groups together symbolically. On the plinth itself will be photographic etchings of Suffragettes and Suffragists.
How about the medium of the placard itself? It seems to be calling both to traditional activism, but also to a motif which appears often in your earlier work, ie, ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’, 1992-3?
I wanted to use a banner as it does directly nod to my work with signs, but more important is that the words on it are inspiring. They speak of the selfless acts of others fighting for a cause, and hopefully they’ll encourage people to think about how our society was shaped in becoming more equal.
Fashion can be used to express ideas regarding politics and art, and that fashion can be a way to open up discussions and thoughts; someone holding a banner can do the same.
What about your choice of material (bronze)? On the one hand, it’s practical for a statue outdoors/designed to stand the test of time, but it’s also a material associated with grand sculptures like the others which populate the square, of generals and politicians… of power, and of men!
This is my fourth bronze sculpture. Bronze wax casting is an ancient process, so we know it lasts for centuries and this is a sculpture that will be there for many many years. It makes sense to make it durable. But many new techniques were used in creating the statue, too, like 3D scanning and printing, photographic etching of tiles… So it was good both to work in a tradition and to introduce new ways of putting a statue together.
This commission celebrates 100 years since voting rights were extended to women in the UK. How far have we come? What work is left to do, as far as women’s rights are concerned?
Well, definitely the pay gap needs to be overhauled - particularly if two people are doing the same job/hours and there’s a disparity in pay.
You’ve collaborated with Bella Freud on a range of merchandise to accompany the unveiling on April 24th; how, in your view, do fashion and art intersect in general? How about in this particular context?
Bella’s range is about reaching out to everyone with ideas expressed in her unique manner via the text on the totes, t-shirts and so on. Fashion can be used to express ideas regarding politics and art, and that fashion can be a way to open up discussions and thoughts; someone holding a banner can do the same. I am a big fan of Bella [Freud]’s and delighted to collaborate with her on this.
This project is a way of looking at the past to educate the present, but also at how events and messages from the past resonate today as if they were contemporary.
We hope the products will allow the public to participate in an historical moment for women in London and the UK, amplifying Fawcett’s message while bringing it to a new generation. Women fighting for suffrage often used their apparel — certain colours, rosettes, jewellery/broaches etc — to display their political allegiances. While they didn’t have direct access to, or influence on, traditional methods of spreading a message (like newspapers), they used themselves. How do you imagine the range and the statue working together to communicate one message? Different messages? And how will that play into the (sartorial) history of the suffrage movement?
This project is a way of looking at the past to educate the present, but also at how events and messages from the past resonate today as if they were contemporary. I think that comes across in the text in the range and also on the banner Millicent holds, as well as the tiles around the plinth that celebrate the collective.