Although it’s a world-class arts venue incorporating a gallery, concert halls and an entire library of poetry, the Southbank Centre is also somewhere that people just go and hang out, especially in the summer. You can drink a coffee or a beer (or both). You can people-watch and enjoy the tourists trying to work out why there are footbridges on both sides of the railway line out of Charing Cross. Normal things. And it’s that sense of London normality that makes it the perfect place for a new show that foregrounds in a very civic way the faces and stories of the individuals who kept everything going through 2020’s lockdown.
‘Everyday Heroes’ is an outdoor exhibition of portraits – paintings, photographs, poems and texts – that celebrate the UK’s key workers. A few months ago, the phrase ‘key workers’ probably conjured a vague sense of A&E staff or something. Now it has a very particular resonance for all of us. Whether it’s bus drivers or nurses, carers or supermarket staff, everyone understands that a huge number of unheroic everyday people heroically did their jobs, made life bearable and saved lives. The show features some big-name visual artists and writers: Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller and German fashion photography luminary Juergen Teller. Its focus, though, is defiantly humble.
Painter Ryan Mosley contributes a portrait of his brother, a train driver. ‘My Brother Paul’ is unsentimental and universal. Bald and bearded, Paul is presented in strict profile, as though you see him in the cab of a train. He could be anything – a bin man, a hospital porter, someone doing a pharmacy or food drop-off – but you know at a glance that he has a role to play. His hi-vis is the new uniform of the corona combatant. Artist Barbara Walker presents a portrait of her daughter, a nurse, while poet Romalyn Ante, herself a nurse, writes about her personal experience of the last few months.
The show is displayed in the form of giant posters across the Southbank Centre’s site: a very visible testament to a load of people who probably won’t get much else in the way of public recognition except in the most general way – ‘key worker’ can be anonymising as well as respectful – and ‘Everyday Heroes’ is an attempt to dive beneath the surface of news reports and PM’s briefings to portray and individuate the people who have actually been dealing with the crisis.
It's a chance to take a moment to think about these people’s lives and stories, and to see their faces. And hang out in the city that probably wouldn’t exist in a meaningful way without them.
‘Everyday Heroes’ is on display across the Southbank Centre site until Nov. Free.