The artist’s legacy is now cast in bronze thanks to her groundbreaking suffragist statue in Parliament Square. By Lydia Slater
It was not until she was in her twenties that Gillian Wearing began to think of herself as a feminist. ‘I don’t really remember those kinds of dialogues when I was younger – though I do recall my father saying that if boys didn’t do domestic work, girls shouldn’t have to either,’ she says of her Birmingham childhood. ‘When I applied to Goldsmiths, I remember talking about feminism and being a feminist artist in my interview; the irony was, I had nothing to back up what I was talking about.’
Today, of course, Wearing’s name is synonymous with one of Britain’s most celebrated works of feminist art: her exquisitely detailed bronze statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett, which stands proudly opposite the House of Commons in Parliament Square, holding up a protest banner. It was erected earlier this year to commemorate the centenary of the granting of women’s partial suffrage; around its base, Wearing etched the images of 59 of Fawcett’s (mainly female) fellow suffrage campaigners, as a way of evening up the gender balance in the square, where previously not only every statue represented a man, but all their creators were male too.
‘Half the population not being represented at all is quite extraordinary,’ says Wearing. ‘Over many years, we see change, and it’s good, but you do get blind spots. Now it’s become a point of conversation.’ Opening eyes, starting conversations – these have been the aims of the Turner Prize-winning artist from the start of her career. Whether she is persuading disguised strangers to confess their deepest secrets on screen, dancing wildly and silently in a shopping centre, donning carefully crafted silicone masks of her family to recreate old snapshots, or having her own image digitally aged by forensic artists, the aim of her brilliant and often unsettling work is always to explore and understand our identity, our duality, our humanity.
‘No one else was prepared to go as far as she did; a lot of other people would have settled for less,’ she says admiringly of Fawcett’s lifetime of protest and championship – and you could say exactly the same of Wearing herself.
Gillian Wearing beside her statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, wearing jacquard skirt, £1,260, Erdem. Mix-blend shirt, £215, Chloé. Suede shoes, £202, Chie Mihara. Tights, £27, Wolford