How to celebrate the continuing vital and sacrificial contribution of key workers during the Covid-19 pandemic? Clap for Carers united the nation early on in lockdown but was thought to have become politicised and was vulnerable to the criticism that it distracted attention from a necessary focus on the low wages paid to many care workers. A memorial sculpture has recently been announced, but ‘Everyday Heroes’, the current outdoor exhibition at the Southbank Centre, has to be one of the best celebrations to date.
Artists include: Michael Armitage, Lydia Blakeley, Jeremy Deller, Laura Grace Ford, Mahtab Hussain, Evan Ifekoya, Matthew Krishanu, Ryan Mosley, Janette Parris, Alessandro Raho, Silvia Rosi, Benjamin Senior, Juergen Teller, Caroline Walker and Barbara Walker.
‘Everyday Heroes’ puts its focus on more than 40 ordinary but utterly remarkable people through newly commissioned portraits displayed across the Southbank Centre’s outdoor areas as large posters and banners. These are portraits of those who have helped to keep this country going during this crisis; health workers, bus drivers, faith workers and shop assistants.
The focus is deliberately local and humble with many of the contributing artists and writers choosing to portray family members, friends, or people in their local communities. These vividly rendered, emotionally articulate and imaginatively intimate portraits rendered in paint, charcoal, photography, collage, or with language (poetry), draw significantly on religious and political imagery and ideas.
Mahtab Hussain presents two portraits, one of a surgeon with the tools of his trade, and the other featuring his friend, the dermatologist Dr A Shahid, who worked throughout the pandemic whilst heavily pregnant. They are painted in the style of Mughal miniature paintings, which are symbolic of the cultural and religious tolerance that developed in India during the medieval period. These images implicitly look for a similar degree of understanding in response to the pandemic.
Matthew Krishanu depicts such understanding in practice through a group of portraits focused on four female religious workers from Birmingham who continued to find ways to serve their Community throughout the crisis. The subjects are Rehanah Sadiq, a Muslim chaplain for two Birmingham NHS hospital trusts; Eve Pitts, Britain’s first black female Church of England vicar; Margaret Jacobi, a rabbi at a progressive Jewish synagogue; and Deseta Davis, a pastor and prison chaplain. All four live in Birmingham and are pictured at work, sometimes dressed in ceremonial clothes, or personal protective equipment.
Poet Laureate Simon Armitage’s poem ‘The Omnipresent’ opens with a powerful description of graffiti on a motorway bridge stating ‘God is an ambulance’. The poem is a meditation – ‘in the silent slo-mo / of locked-down life’ – on the possibility of the divine seen in the ability of the emergency services to be in many places at the same time. The photography of Evan Ifekoya similarly explores the relationship between the spiritual and material in everyday rituals. Intimacy and Community are found by processing information drawn from the rhythms of daily practice. Through rituals, the small and every day is seen to exist in conjunction with the expansiveness of oceans and time reiterating flux and fluidity while connecting the body in a spiritual-material relationship to the natural world. ‘No 1. Start From A Place Of Abundance’, 2018, is part of a larger body of work, ‘Ritual Without Belief’, that emerged from Ifekoya’s ongoing residency at Lambeth’s Gasworks gallery.
Jeremy Deller has a track record in widely available posters disseminating timely political messages. Here, he reflects on recent events in the UK with a graphic artwork that reads ‘An immigrant saving a racist’s life x 500,000’; a word portrait of the UK in 2020. Deller’s ‘Thank God for Immigrants’ poster raising funds for Refugee Action and The Trussel Trust sold out earlier in lockdown. Roger Robinson, whose poem ‘On Nurses’ features, says: ‘It wasn’t the bankers, millionaires or computer magnates that we turned to in the crisis – it was the nurses, garbage cleaners, supermarket workers; I hope these people will be valued more.’ Such imagery and ideas make common cause with the experience of Jack Arts, media partner for the exhibition, known for their ‘Community is kindness’ and ‘Community is strength’ campaigns during lockdown. They have extended ‘Everyday Heroes’ off-site with portraits presented across several of their billboards on selected streets in London and other cities throughout the UK including Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester and Sheffield.
The Jack Arts posters unintentionally became iconic pieces of art during the COVID-19 lockdown. Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, says: ‘This extraordinary period in our history demands that arts organisations find new ways of responding to the moment and bringing art to the public.’ Therefore, ‘Everyday Heroes’ aims to highlight ‘a range of ingenious and inspired approaches to image-making and poetry’ ‘furnishing the inspiration which visual art and poetry provide to our collective imagination and civic life.’
‘Everyday Heroes’ illuminates the often unsung lives of key workers and the many different ways that people across the country have come together to support one another, and find a way through it. Taken together, these portraits highlight the sheer scale of the collective response to this crisis which is helping keep this country going during the crisis. Those involved are often working in extremely challenging circumstances and putting their own personal safety at risk.
‘Everyday Heroes’ is vividly imaginative and emotionally compelling; were its inspiration to foster ongoing community kindness through the valuing of immigrants and appropriate pay for care workers that might well be the best celebration of key workers imaginable.
Words: Revd Jonathan Evens © Artlyst 2020 Top Photo Jeremy Deller All Photos by Linda Nylind Courtesy Southbank
Everyday Heroes UNTIL 1 NOV 2020 Across the Southbank Centre site