Dr Juanita Cox, a research fellow on the ‘Windrush Generation’ history project at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies’, celebrates Stockwell’s Bronze Woman, a tribute to Caribbean women which ‘demands the right to be viewed through deracialised eyes’.
“Wat a devilment a Englan!
Dem face war and brave de worse,
But me wonderin how dem gwin stan
Colonizin in reverse.”
[Excerpt from Louise Bennett’s poem, Colonizin in Reverse]
A 10ft high statue, The Bronze Woman, sits on a small triangle of land; a two-to-four minute walk from Stockwell train station. Barefooted, the bronze woman wears a sleeveless, knee-length dress and a head-wrap that ties back into a bun at the nap of her neck. Chin tilted up, she gazes into the eyes of the baby she has raised above her head.
According to ‘London Remembers’ it is the first statue representing African-Caribbean motherhood to be on permanent display in England. Her presence seemingly references the ancestors of African-Caribbean women: their migrations in time and place, first forced then free, from Africa, to the Caribbean, to Britain, their struggles, strength and survival. But as a metonym for womanhood she also appears, perhaps more importantly, to look forward with hope to the success of future generations.
Who was the brainchild behind The Bronze Woman? How might she feel to know a photograph of the statue is now the stunning front cover of Memory, Migration and (De)Colonisation in the Caribbean and Beyond. Published by the University of London Press, the book is a ground-breaking blend of academic scholarship and memoir, which together offer a complex vision of decolonisation that ranges from the transnational to the personal, with specific focus on post-war West Indian immigration to the UK.
What words of wisdom might she impart as the black-British community continue to grapple with the legacies of colonialism? I addressed these questions to Bruce Nobrega, one of the book’s contributors and son of Cécile Nobrega, the visionary responsible for the statue’s existence. What follows comes partially out of that conversation and the prior knowledge I had of her.
Cécile Nobrega (left) was born in Georgetown, British Guiana (present-day Guyana) on 1 June 1919 to ambitious parents, Rev Canon William Granville Burgan and his wife, Imelda. The notion, despite the delimiting context of colonialism, that there were ‘no limits’ to what she could achieve as a woman was perhaps instilled by her maternal grandmother who had suggested she be named after Cécile Chaminade, the first French female composer to be awarded the Legion d’honneur.
Nurtured within a creative household, Cécile Nobrega soon became an accomplished classical composer, artist, scholar, educator, writer and poet. Her first book of verses, Soliloquies, published in 1968, contained the poem, Bronze Woman, in which she traces the experience of women who, from the days of slavery to those beyond independence, sacrificed all to ensure their children would be ‘a step away / from want and need: / a step away from toil and sweat / the heat of the day’. Her poem asks us to recognise and cherish the stalwart Bronze Woman who has often had to play the role of ‘father-mother’, ‘woman-man’ in an act described as a ‘monument of love’.
In the final stanza, the poet asks if we can help her find a place ‘In the Caribbee / There I will set her / Bronze Woman / Free / Honoured for shaping / Our Destiny.’ Within a Caribbean context, the poem offers matter-of-fact criticism of the system of patriarchy, while calling for the recognition of the extraordinary contribution made by women to the Caribbean family and society-at-large. In this context ‘bronze’ connotes strength and sun-kissed skin.
At the time of writing Bronze Woman, Cécile was already a mother of three children (Keith, Bruce and Eve) and had been married to Romeo Nobrega since 1942. As the poem suggests she had originally envisaged the placement of a bronze woman statue somewhere in the Caribbean. While the idea of a monument was never forgotten, other concerns took priority following a move in 1969 to the UK.
An activist at heart, she became involved in the National Union of Teachers and fought against the placement of predominantly racialised ethnic-minority children in Educationally Subnormal (ESN) Schools. She nurtured a love of travel and the desire to meet like-minded women by joining the writers’ group PEN, the International Alliance of Women and the Commonwealth Countries League.
But it was only after the death of her husband in 1994 that she launched ‘The Bronze Women Project’ and was later able, with the invaluable support of OLMEC, a BME-led social enterprise charity, to raise the £84,000 needed to realise her dream. The renowned sculptor Ian Walters designed the initial model, but following his death, Aleix Barbat, a prize-winning sculptor, took on and completed the project.
The Bronze Woman statue was erected in Stockwell Memorial Gardens on 8 October 2008. Coinciding with Black History Month, it also marked the 60th Anniversary of the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush – many of its British-Caribbean passengers had settled in the Stockwell area – and the recent 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.
The Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC – Britain’s first woman attorney general – performed the keynote speech and invited prominent women of Caribbean origin to stand in a circle around the statue as it was unveiled. They included Cécile Nobrega, contemporary artist Anissa Jane, entrepreneur Sonita Alleyne, OBE, Baroness Rosalind Howells of St Davids, OBE, community activist Jessica Huntley, Kanya King, MBE, founder of the MOBO Awards, diversity expert Brenda King, MBE, equal rights campaigner Doreen Lawerence, OBE, and community campaigner Sybil Pheonix, MBE. Tanisha Haynes, a pupil from Year 5 at the nearby St Mark’s Primary School was also present.
Within a British context, the significance of the Bronze Woman had altered. As the first permanent statue celebrating Caribbean womanhood, it acted as a subversion of the marginalised place of women of colour, not only within the male-oriented narratives of the Windrush story, but also within British society in general. It pointed too, to the right of the black woman, and by inference the wider black-British community, to assert her/their place as permanent fixtures of the British landscape; confounding the often-notable absence of the black experience within mainstream British history. In retaining the adjective ‘bronze’, she demands the right to be viewed through deracialised eyes.
Much has changed since Cécile joined the ancestors, aged 94, on 19 November 2013. The UK now celebrates Windrush Day on 22 June every year, an observance first introduced in 2018. This has not meant the battle for equality or fair play has been won as seen by the ongoing Windrush scandal in which British descendants of the Windrush generation have been detained, deported and denied citizenship.
So while Cécile would have been proud that her shape shifting Bronze Woman continues to challenge the legacies of colonialism, she might warn against complacency, remind of the power of personal and collective agency, and buoy us up with lines from her life-affirming poem, ‘Right to Life’: ‘however great the hurricane/the smiling grass/bobs up its head again’.
On 1 June, 2019, exactly one hundred years to the day Cécile Nobrega was born, her former home in Lambeth, only a few hundred yards away from the Bronze Woman Statue, was commemorated with a Nubian Jak Community Trust blue heritage plaque. She, herself, honoured for shaping our destiny.
Dr Juanita Cox is a research fellow on the Nationality, Identity and Belonging: an oral history of the ‘Windrush Generation’ and their relationship to the British State, 1948–2018 project at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. She is the editor of Creole Chips and Other Writings, a compendium of Edgar Mittelholzer’s uncollected writings, and has also written introductions to novels, chapters to collections, published essays and given prestigious lectures. Dr Cox is co-founder of the groundbreaking series, Guyana SPEAKS, an education and networking forum that has become a key monthly event in the calendar of the London-based Guyanese diaspora.