The Inspirational Figures installation at Republic's educational campus in Poplar. Image courtesy of Republic.
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Republic’s education campus has transformed into a canvas of East London’s inspirational heroes

From the female football star Alex Scott to Kano the grime pioneer, Republic’s campus in Poplar is celebrating East London’s cultural trailblazers.

We all remember growing up with an inspirational hero, whose journey to success empowered us to dream for a bigger and better future. East London’s Republic, on the historic site of the East India Docks, is helping young people uncover their unique potential for excellence.

Republic is an educational and community hub next to the former Tower Hamlets Town Hall at Mulberry Place. At Republic, higher education institutions operate alongside businesses and social enterprises. The ‘21st-century’ campus facilitates a pioneering co-learning model, creating an atmosphere of innovation and enterprise.

The site is home to over 15,000 students from an international community, creating a melting pot of diversity. The University of the West of Scotland, City Gateway, Global Banking School, Anglia Ruskin University and York St John University all share a presence here.

East London’s natural beauty spots and architectural feats are easily accessible from Republic. To the east of the campus, you can find the Limmo Peninsula Ecology Park on the bend of the River Lea, while the inspirational grounds of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park are further to the north.

On Wednesday 27 September, Republic unveiled a series of campus art as part of its project Inspirational Figures. On the huge ground-floor windows of the Import and Export buildings, a selection of pop art-style portraits of local and national heroes have appeared.

A diverse range of cultural trailblazers encase the buildings, from Alex Scott, the female footballer from Poplar to Dreda Say Mitchell, the journalist from an East End council estate. Whether you enter the campus from Naval Row, Saffron Avenue, or Nutmeg Lane, the portraits are there to inspire everyone.

Inspirational Figures is the result of a collaboration between the Republic Community and Placemaking Team, campus students, and the local people of Poplar. The art installation connects today’s generation to historical East London heroes, motivating young people to unlock their unlimited potential.

Isuru Wijesundara, a student at Republic studying an MBA at York St John, said: 

‘As a master’s student, the inspirational figures showcased across our campus are a powerful projection of what is possible. 

‘They ignite a fire within, reminding me that I am part of a legacy of potential achievers. The message is clear: with unwavering determination, the future holds extraordinary promise.’

The community of Tower Hamlets was central to the artistic vision behind Inspirational      Figures. Social Value and Partnerships Manager of Republic Anne-Marie Payne embarked on a consultation process with nearby residents to ensure the artwork was reflective of our borough. 

Inspirational Figures is part of Republic’s mission to empower Poplar with access to a thriving educational community. At Republic, Anne-Marie is building a knowledge exchange framework between the universities and local businesses. The campus facilitates specialist mentorship for nearby residents, delivered by Oitij-jo Collective, a Bengali charity based in Bethnal Green, True Ambassadors and The Trampery Greenhouse Incubator, amongst other onsite charities.

As a borough known for its international communities and diverse voices, Tower Hamlets is always changing. Nevertheless, Republic’s campus is firmly tied to the industrial heritage of East London. To the west of the campus, the Grade-II listed East India Dock Boundary Wall can be found, allowing students to walk through history as they enter their modern campus.    

Each black-and-white portrait is accompanied by a motivational quote for campus dwellers to read while perched in the scenic Water Gardens. As you wander through Republic’s grounds, you’ll be struck by the words of East Ham-born grime innovator, Kano:

‘There are too many kids who don’t think they can make it to the top. They give up before they have even started, but in my eyes everyone can succeed and it’s really important that young people believe in themselves.’

Before grime became an international phenomenon, the grassroots genre developed on the streets of East London. From Skepta and Dizzee Rascal to Kano and Tinchy Stryder, the chart-topping sensations of grime began their careers in our local area.  

Inspirational Figures strengthens the relationship between the international campus and the community of Poplar. Through the portraits, Republic pays homage to East London’s cultural innovators, whose humble beginnings didn’t stop them from achieving excellence. 

Mark Noble, the footballer who has spent his whole career as the loyal captain of West Ham United, is showcased on campus. His fighting words offer some food for thought:

‘I always give 100% in every game I play, even if it’s not enough.’

While we may be used to watching her on our TV screens, Stepney-born Eastenders actress Barbara Windsor is now a permanent face of Republic’s bustling campus. The family-favourite actress passed away in 2020, but her striking portrait cements her legacy.

Rosie Niblock, Marketing and Communications Manager at Republic said:

‘At Republic, we recognise the impact of representation and local geographies in influencing our futures. The Inspirational Figures project harnesses the power of place-based arts initiatives in creating a sense of empowerment and belonging.

‘We are incredibly pleased with how the finished product has animated the space and brought together a diverse set of people to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.’

Inspirational Figures celebrates the creative visionaries responsible for building our East End. It is therefore fitting that the series spotlights Hungarian-born British architect Ernő Goldfinger (1902-1987). The pioneering architect was the visionary behind Poplar’s 26-storey Balfron Tower, which provided vital housing for the community post-war.

Activists who fought for the civil rights of the marginalised are commemorated by Republic. Around campus, Annie Besant (1847-1933), women’s rights advocate and Indian Independence leader, joins ranks with Sufia Kamal (1911-1999), Bangladeshi poet and political activist of the Bangladesh Liberation War.

Besant and Kamal fought for justice in a divided society, and their towering portraits ensure we remain united in the ongoing fight for equality.

The portrait series showcases a broad range of career paths, proving that we needn’t limit our horizons. Kenny Lynch, the singer and actor from Stepney joins the album of famous faces alongside Tommy Flowers, the engineer and mathematician from Poplar who helped break the enigma code, bringing World War II to a close.

Whether you’re a budding scientist or an amateur musician, you’ll feel inspired by the Republic campus.

The art installation has just launched, and Republic is excited to represent more of the local community’s inspirations on its campus in the future. The display is an archive of East London’s history, as well as a motivating call to action. As we walk amongst sporting superstars and political leaders, we’re invited to join their ranks and become heroes ourselves.

The Inspirational Figures installation at Republic's educational campus in Poplar. Image courtesy of Republic.
The Inspirational Figures installation at Republic’s educational campus in Poplar. Image courtesy of Republic.
The Inspirational Figures installation at Republic's educational campus in Poplar. Image courtesy of Republic.
The Inspirational Figures installation at Republic’s educational campus in Poplar. Image courtesy of Republic.
The Inspirational Figures installation at Republic's educational campus in Poplar. Image courtesy of Republic.
The Inspirational Figures installation at Republic’s educational campus in Poplar. Image courtesy of Republic.

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