The artist celebrating the Windrush generation

Published 17 September 2021

Veronica Ryan, the sculptor behind a new monument to the Windrush generation in Hackney, shows Ruby Tandoh the fruit markets that inspired the commission.

  • From the Autumn 2021 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Veronica Ryan was going to place the soursop in the churchyard, until her nerves set in. The sculpture – a 1.5-metre bronze in the spiked, comma shape of a tropical soursop fruit – would have been in good company among the locals who stroll and chat in the shade of the St John at Hackney gardens in east London. A short walk away, there would be a large, petalled custard apple in luminous Carrara marble, and a breadfruit, its honeycomb skin rendered in bronze. But something about the placement didn’t feel right.

    “I started feeling anxious,” Ryan explains, as we meander through the lunchtime crowds, dodging bag-laden shoppers and Deliveroo riders near the church. “Although they’re separate works, they don’t want to be separated.” It would be better, she decided, for the three sculptures to nestle together, settling on a pedestrianised flank of busy Mare Street. Across from a McDonald’s and in the shadow of the 16th-century St Augustine’s Tower, the Caribbean fruits will make history in October, when they are unveiled as Britain’s first public monuments to the Windrush generation.

    Born in 1956 in Montserrat, Ryan was raised in London and Hertfordshire, before studying in Bath and at London’s Slade School of Fine Art. In her work, she often gives material form to the sense of displacement she experienced: avocado trays become a meditation on containment; mango seeds are a milky block of marble, an uneasy resting place. In Drift Seeds (below), which featured in a recent solo exhibition at Bristol’s Spike Island, fat brown seeds are caught at the bottom of a fisherman’s net. “They grow in mangroves, then travel across the Gulf Stream and end up far away,” Ryan says. “They find their own habitat and germinate accordingly. I like the metaphorical inferences of that.”

    Creating a monument to an entire generation – in all its dizzying diversity, across many cultures and countries – might seem like an impossible task to some, but Ryan doesn’t deal in monoliths. When she talks about the fruits she has chosen for these sculptures, she jumps quietly but enthusiastically across topics and timelines, weaving a network of associations that denies any single narrative. There is the memory of her sister choking on the spines of a prickly pear, her brother climbing coconut trees in Montserrat and the ripeness of mangoes that have fallen from the tree. “I was curious about custard apples because I remember the first time I had one, it was so perfumed it made me sick.” She enjoys custard apples now, with their sweet, creamy flesh, but then it was never really about the fruit itself. “It had a wider context: the heat and humidity, the strangeness of Montserrat. It was the whole experience of what it stood for, which is what food is really about, isn’t it?”

  • We pick a path towards Ridley Road market, less than a mile from the sculpture’s site. Ryan would visit the market as a child, with her mother, both of them fascinated and overwhelmed by the sensory fantasia on offer. Today, she carries the same sense of wonder. She pauses to admire the petals of a custard apple and the mottled patina of a ripe breadfruit. She reaches out to touch nets woven in neon thread, and marvels over the baroque intricacies of a piece of tripe. When we reach a sign for dried soursop leaves, she explains that they’re good for insomnia. “I like these different possibilities,” she muses. “These foods are decorative and they can be playful, but they can also tell us how people came to be in this particular area. And they can be curative, too.”

    These multiple narratives will, Ryan hopes, evoke a whole spectrum of responses among locals when her sculptures are unveiled. “Some might wonder what they are. Children might want to touch them, and hopefully they’ll sit on them and play around them.” Hackney’s Caribbean population, many of whom are part of the Windrush generation, will recognise the fruits, their own associations and stories crystallising around these familiar forms.

    “We have a lot of monuments of men,” Ryan notes wrily, “who have not come out of very noble positions. I like the idea that there are public works that define a different history. Seeing representations of one’s cultural heritage in a public space is an affirmation – evidence that you belong here.”

    Veronica Ryan’s Windrush Monument is unveiled on 1 Oct, near St Augustine’s Tower, Hackney, London

    Ruby Tandoh’s latest book, Cook As You Are: Recipes for Real Life, Hungry Cooks and Messy Kitchens (Serpent’s Tail), is published on 7 Oct

  • Portrait of Veronica Ryan

    Portrait of Veronica Ryan

    Photo: Lily Bertrand-Webb/Courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts, London

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