Joe has great admiration for the German artist Joseph Beuys and his radical and inclusive approach to art and society, and art in society. Both within and beyond his work Joe has consistently been prompted to make creative interventions in public spaces which open up art, culture, history, and social questions to the people who encounter them. His multi-coloured pigeons in the Granby Four Streets area, inspired by Patrick Murphy’s project Belonging for the Liverpool Biennial in 2012, are just one example of this. His creativity has also defined his projects of commemoration. It was after seeing Joe’s temporary Remembrance Day memorial on Princes Avenue, which he put up in November 2020 when lockdown restrictions meant people couldn’t gather for commemorations, and which honoured especially the contributions of people of colour to the war through images of regiments from all over the world, that we made contact with him.
The Princes Avenue memorial was the latest in a series of unique commemorations he has devised. In 2012, when the centenary of World War One was approaching, Joe put out a call on Facebook for people to send him stones from all over the world. He received sand from the beaches of every island in the Caribbean, stones from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Germany, and was given some Chinese jade. He took these to the Granby Workshop where they were mixed with local stone, ground down, and then, at Anfield, made into two large pots. He travelled to Mesen in Flanders to donate the pots to the museum there, objects made in Liverpool which embodied diversity in a material sense, created and given in memory of all the teenagers who were killed during World War One.
The importance of the Second World War in his own family’s history brings us back to Falkner Square Gardens. In the early 1990s, Joe was running a gallery on the square. At the events he organised there he hosted an array of brilliant and distinguished guests, including Maya Angelou and June Jordan. Around Christmas 1992 he was reading about the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic, and he resolved to establish a memorial in Liverpool, for all the Black merchant seamen who served during World War 2. He contacted the office of Edmund Vestey, who had been appointed as a Queen’s representative on memorials, who endorsed the idea and came to help unveil the memorial in November 1993. And he went down to Canning Place, by the docks, to the site of the Sailors’ Home where his grandfather had stayed. The home itself had been demolished, but the stones from the impressive archway which fronted it were piled up on the site, and Joe selected one of these for the memorial. He thought carefully about the location, but settled on Falkner Square Gardens because it had been home to the consulates of many different countries – including many African countries – so any seamen visiting Liverpool who needed to have any formal contact with their country’s consulate would have come to the square. It was another stop on one of their many long journeys, and a place that offered an official connection with their homes, just as the shops on Granby Street maintained cultural connections, and represented the way in which Liverpool itself became home to people of many different nationalities and ethnicities.
That kind of care, thought, and sensitivity in Joe’s campaigning work struck us again and again as we listened to him. His advocacy is ceaselessly considerate and inclusive. His aim has always been to make and claim space for recognition and remembrance, on behalf of people who have been marginalised or forgotten. He understands this from his own family experience. He and his uncle spent years trying to claim his grandfather Ali’s service records from his time in the Merchant Navy, and the medals he had been awarded for his war service. Their enquiries were repeatedly met with the baffling answer that there was no such person as Ali Hussein Farrag. Eventually, they discovered that in the official record his name had been recorded backwards, so he was listed as Farrag Hussein Ali. This is much more than a clerical error: it is insensitivity which connotes insult, and which amounts to injustice. It denies a family the official recognition of the sacrifice their loved one made, and of the significance of the loss they endured. It is a particular slight given the solemnity with which the world wars and the armed services are remembered in British culture. And we know that the scale of this injustice is vast. We encountered Joe’s family story against the troubling background of revelations about the failure of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to commemorate as many as 350,000 Black and Asian soldiers who fought for the British Empire during World War One, and of the enforced deportation, by the British government, of thousands of Chinese merchant seamen from Liverpool after World War Two. We discuss these essential contexts in more detail in the ‘Inspiration and Recommendations’ section.
At the top of the memorial in Falkner Square Gardens, the silhouette of a ship is shown in relief. That ship is the Fort Concord, the vessel on which Joe’s grandfather Ali went down during the Battle of the Atlantic. It is at once a sign of the personal loss to Joe’s family, and symbolic of the collective act of honour this memorial performs. When we spoke to Joe, he reflected on the fact that many of the merchant seamen who were killed during the war would have stayed – like his grandfather – in the Sailors’ Home. When he chose the stone for the memorial from that demolished building, he was remembering them and, he said,
“…the stone felt real…it's almost their, well, it is, it's their gravestone because if the ship is sunk…there is no gravestone to go to remember. In the park you’ve got benches, people will sit down, remember their grandfathers or whatever, you know, their father and, and possibly their mother at the same time.”
To borrow the words of the memorial: Respect Due.
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