Bronzed female faces are everywhere in Cardiff. I pass thousands of them every week on Queen’s St, St Mary’s St and around the civic centre.
Above me, as I walk, yet more unnamed women keep watch, hold up buildings, cotch under eaves and above doorways. Among them are virtues, goddesses, mothers and angels, but not a single woman from, y’know, real life.
When I started looking for a public sculpture in Cardiff of an actual female person, living or dead, whose name I could google, I came up with nothing.
I’d rather be proven wrong about this, but it really does look like every female body represented in public sculpture around Cardiff is symbolic (every! single! one!). They fall into the following general categories: angel, goddess, virtue, caryatid, figurehead, mother and wife. Possibly mermaid.
There isn’t a single, individual woman among them. A walk around town will quickly show you that this isn’t a problem we have when it comes to ‘real men’, who have autographs and dates of birth and all that other fancy ‘real life’ stuff.
Gareth Edwards, Ivor Novello, Nye Bevan, Lord Bute… There’s a long list of men whose likenesses are commemorated around the city, their achievements and privileges listed underneath. That there is not a single female role model among them, however, is unacceptable, and I hope I’m not alone in observing this.
A comment on public art in general should shoulder in here, probably to qualify the fact that I’m looking, against my better judgement, at representational, commemorative art in this post. There are some great examples of abstract, kinetic and interventionalist art around Cardiff, as well as some total dreck and inaccessible whimsy. They all deserve further commentary and by all means, point me towards it if it exists.
Within the orbits of chat about access to the arts, urban planning, the reinvention of common space; there’s only one thing I want to tackle and it’s pretty simple.
While baby boomers are still in charge of commissioning and approving public art, we might as well ask: where the ladies at?
In a frankly super-retro twist on an ole’ Victorian classic; women’s bodies and what they represent are abundant in Cardiff, but not their stories, identities and voices. The ‘seen and not heard’ female slips unnoticed into the civic background of the city. I’m willing to bet an old 50p that the ideal of Empire, which still hangs about the ankles of the city, tripping us up every now and again like a pair of pants on a drunkard, has a hand in this inequality.
I have had the peculiar privilege of speaking at some of the Old Boys’ Clubs still left in this city, full of men who used to control the Docks, Stocks and Shares. They are men who spend a lot of time in some of the only really grand buildings to have survived Cardiff’s Mermaidification; whose fathers have literally gilded halls named after them; who eat their glorified public-school-school dinners together in wood-panelled rooms and play golf.
On one occasion, after giving a lecture, I was leafing through the visitor book in the grand foyer of an OBC. The Maitre d’ (yes they do exist in this town) made a soft-shoed but frantic move towards me and covered the page with his hand. He said quietly: “Women don’t leave a mark here.”
I waited until he had gone and did one in red pen, but that’s beside the point. The point was that I was only allowed to enter this place, to play at ‘culture’, on the condition that I left no trace.
It was a resonant moment. We can participate in and contribute to civic life in Cardiff – even at its most horrifyingly exclusive – as long as we don’t leave a mark. The outstanding women of Cardiff and Wales deserve to have their contributions recorded and represented. This is why I think we should erect a sculpture of an actual woman in this City.
I’m hoping that those of you who’ve made it this far, who are at least in partial agreement, will add your own suggestions in the comments – which amazing women would you like to see commemorated in Cardiff?
I’ve made a start on this little research project – one which I hope you’ll join too. In the short time I’ve been looking, I’ve uncovered so many interesting Welsh women’s stories, each worthy of memorial and celebration in Cardiff. I’ll be posting about them as I go. Then we’ll do a Poll. Everyone loves a Poll. Although I think Shirley Bassey will win it. Xx
Thanks to Peter Cox and Cardiff Civic Society for information on public art in Cardiff. Photo of Miss Millie’s bin by amcunningham72, Nereid by _claireelizabeth. The photo of Girl was taken by tobanblack.