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Taking place across Southbank Centre, Everyday Heroes is an outdoor exhibition that celebrates the contributions that key workers and frontline staff have made during the pandemic. Photo by Linda Nylind. 1/9/2020.
Photograph: Linda Nylind, installation view Installation view of Janette Parris’s work

8 artists and writers pay tribute to their everyday heroes

London’s NHS workers, shopkeepers and carers are at the centre of a new outdoor exhibition on the South Bank

By Katie McCabe
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The concept of ‘heroes’ is a complex one. In the early months of lockdown, a new, effusive kind of gratitude opened up for what was broadly termed ‘the key workers’ – the delivery drivers, the teachers, the carers, the refuse collectors and the NHS frontline staff – many of whom were forced to carry out their jobs in unsafe conditions so we could hold on to some semblance of normality. 

It begs the question, why did it take a crisis like this one to recognise the people our society cannot function without? At the Southbank Centre, just a few of these individuals have had their faces and stories represented in an enormous outdoor exhibition. There are intimate portraits of taxi drivers, shopkeepers, nurses and religious leaders that can be viewed at a distance, on a gigantic scale. Other tributes come in the form of poems and texts that have been blown up on colourful posters placed on the side of the building.

More than 21 artists and writers contributed, some creating artworks about friends or family, others celebrating key workers they encountered during lockdown. In light of the exhibition, we asked a few of the participating artists, ‘who has been your everyday hero during the pandemic, and why?’

‘Who has been your everyday hero been during the pandemic?’

Caroline Walker 2020
Photograph: Peter Mallet photography

Caroline Walker

‘The local shopkeepers where I live in Islington who put themselves at personal risk in order to keep serving the community in the early days of lockdown. That’s why I chose to make a painting of Elaine for ‘Everyday Heroes’. Elaine works at Raabs the bakers on Essex Road, which is something of a local institution. They never stopped serving their delicious bread, even when the shelves in the supermarkets were bare.’ 

Caroline is a Scottish painter based in London. Find out more about her work here

Mahtab Hussain
Photograph: Courtesy of Mahtab Hussain

Mahtab Hussain

‘I would have to say my little girl Honor. She is seven but quite the pocket rocket who gives epic high fives. After struggling with homeschooling I decided we should simply have fun and do all the things we love together. I taught her to cycle a day into lockdown so we were out most days. We baked, watched films, painted and even walked a few local dogs. I also watched her flip and cartwheel on the trampoline and we swam in the sea and the local river.

‘She’s such a doer too, and even helped cut the grass all the while giving me the best morning cuddles in bed. Just seeing her smile and having her embrace me like she does has made me reconnect with what truly matters in life.’

Mahtab is a fine-art portrait photographer. View his work here

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Roger Robinson
Photograph: Courtesy of Roger Robinson

Roger Robinson

My everyday hero is my wife Nicola Griffiths. She has always been amazing, but during our time in Covid she has been a shining example of a good-spirited team player during a fraught time of collective trauma. She has adapted and played well to any role that was needed from her during the crisis.

‘Here are some facts: I estimate that she’s cooked over four hundred meals from scratch for our family. When I was drowning in admin due to dyslexia and winning some literary prizes, she reduced time on her job to support me (and took on that role like a boss with amazing communication and negotiation skills). She then took over elements of management and bookings and dates for all my work. She showed our six-and-a-half-year-old (and me) so much love, time and attention and took on the bulk of my son’s homeschooling.

‘All these things she has done whilst being in a good mood and finding spaces for herself for alone time and generally being loving, humorous and friendly. So, for all these reasons Nicola Griffiths, my beautiful wife, is my everyday hero.’

Roger is a writer, educator and TS Eliot-prize-winner. Find out more about his work here. 

Matthew Krishanu
Photograph: Takis Zontiros

Matthew Krishanu

‘For Southbank Centre’s “Everyday Heroes” project I chose to celebrate the religious workers who have been active during the pandemic – leading funerals, supporting the bereaved, and being by the hospital bed – virtually or in person: 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.’

Matthew is a painter, curator and writer. See his work here.

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Image: Janette Parris
Image: Janette Parris

Janette Parris

My arms-length (let’s pretend my arms are two metres long) everyday encounters with key workers meant that when I had no fresh food and my medication supply was dangerously low, I wasn’t vulnerable. I could stay at home.

‘When the only time you’ve seen the outside world is a weekly run to the wheely bin with your rubbish, that conversation with the delivery driver is the highlight of your life. Delivery drivers are notoriously in a hurry, but during lockdown, they weren’t. Take Dave, an ex-cabbie now driving a supermarket delivery van. Dave chatted away about his wife as he stood at a distance watching me bag my shopping (the things that actually came).

‘I had so many lovely, mundane conversations about nothing much while the world was going mad. To single out any individual from all of those workers who were, and still are, putting their lives at risk going about their jobs, seems kind of wrong. I don’t have a specific everyday hero, they all are.’ 

Janette is an artist working across drawing, animation, and performance. Find out more here

Photograph: Courtesy of Ryan Mosley
Photograph: Courtesy of Ryan Mosley

Ryan Mosley

‘My heroes during lockdown, and ever since the pandemic broke out, are all the front-line workers. It became clear early on how much everything is reliant on everything else running seamlessly for all society to exist in a world we take for granted. As soon as schools closed down I found newer respect and admiration for all teachers and all educators. We had a baby during lockdown. The midwives and doctors were already our heroes but the NHS became the biggest and best hero of all.’

Ryan is a London-based painter. Find out more here. 

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Photographer : Vanley burke Barbara Walker
Photographer: Vanley burke

Barbara Walker

My daughter’s youngest child Daniella and her friend Rosemary. They are both nurses. Frontline NHS staff are, of course, particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, and the susceptibility of ethnic minorities to the pandemic is sadly a matter of fact. The work I present in ‘Everyday Heroes’ acts as a response to the present situation and a desire to contribute to a worthy cause in a meaningful way.’

Barbara is a visual artist who works in large-scale figurative drawings and paintings. See her work here

Photograph: Mary McCartney
Photograph: Mary McCartney

Jackie Kay

‘When my soon-to-be ninety-year-old mother was fifteen, in 1945, she was picked to be the Peace Queen of Lochgelly, and carried aloft a milk float with a fancy peace sash on. Recently on VE day, her carer Marie made her a brand new peace sash and my mum read a peace poem to all the others in her care home.

‘During Lockdown, Marie has sent me many WhatsApp messages telling me what my mum and she have discussed or done. Once, she managed to arrange a lone piper to play “Scotland the Brave” in the garden. Another time, she googled my mum’s home to show her her old street and front door.

‘I can’t imagine how I would have got through this time without the kindness, inventiveness, and empathy of Marie. She is my everyday hero in this poem. I imagined what it must be like for her, carrying the past of so many people on her back, and if finding her own way home, was affected by the daily worry of working in a care home.’

Jackie is a poet, playwright, and novelist. Read her work here

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