Brixton Calling! was a collaborative, participatory project that brought together 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning and the Brixton Artists Collective Archives Group (BACA) to examine the links between contemporary Brixton and its past by exploring the history of Brixton Art Gallery and Artists Collective in the 1980s.
Brixton Art Gallery was an integral part of the London art scene from its establishment in railway arches below Brixton Station in June 1983 until it finally closed in 2005. Founded and run by the Artists Collective, it offered artists the opportunity to exhibit work that would not be shown elsewhere either on account of the issues that it tackled, or because of their race, gender or sexuality. Their strong belief in equality of opportunity for all was reflected in their exhibitions policy, with half of the shows being organized by and for black artists. Two women artists’ groups (Women’s Work and Black Women in View) were based at Brixton Art Gallery and put on annual exhibitions, as did the Gay and Lesbian Artists Group.
The Brixton Calling! project sought to bring together artists and communities to explore some of the Gallery’s collaborative artistic approaches to social and political issues and to create new artworks that are relevant to Brixton today. Between March and November 2011, 198 Contemporary Arts and BACA led a series of community engagement projects that focused on the first 50 exhibitions held at the gallery between 1983 and 1986. One of these was Looking Back, Moving Forward, which was led by Barby Asante and explored the Gallery’s involvement in the anti-apartheid movement by concentrating on two major exhibitions, Soweto: the Patchwork of our Lives (May 1986) and Monti Wa Marumo (June 1984). Eugene Skeef, one of the artists involved in the latter exhibition, met with a group of Year 11 pupils from the local Burntwood School to talk to them about his experiences as a young activist in apartheid South Africa and of the Gallery. In addition, Terri Bullen shared her experiences of working on Soweto: A Patchwork of our Lives with the Zamani Soweto Sisters and showed the pupils documentation on why the group was started. They also visited the Anti-Apartheid Movement archives at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Barby Asante and Gary Stewart, artist in residence at 198, then helped the girls to devise a multimedia performance based on the material they had collected. [Add link to edited film of performance if I can find one.]
Meanwhile, a group of older women from the Brixton community led by Teri Bullen of BACA created the quilted wall hanging More or Less? which, while reflecting current concerns about cuts in public services, refers in particular to Textiles Making & Meaning (1984), Soweto: the Patchwork of our Lives (1986) and inspirational pieces such as the AIDS memorial quilt. The group also visited the Women’s Library to see suffragette banners as further evidence of the ways in which women artists have used textiles to express their views on social and political issues. After the group had selected the colours that would best represent themselves and the key words they wanted to use on their wall hanging, they attended practical workshops in technique, design, lettering, appliqué and simple quilting of the kind freely offered to the public during the 1980s at Brixton Art Gallery. During the exhibition of work by the Zamani Soweto Sisters Council in Patchwork of our Lives, these included not only the sharing of basic textile skills, but also the richness of the motifs and designs of their South African heritage. As the Sisters said of their patchwork: “The green is our country, the gold is the sun, the black is ourselves, and the red is our blood.”
During the 1980s, artists at Brixton Art Gallery were involved in making their own exhibition posters, exhibition catalogues and leaflets. This was very much in the mould of creative radical printing practices taking place at the time amongst many community groups and collectives concerned with politics, self direction, creativity and self expression. Among the events held during 2011 was a workshop that explored the work of such radical print collectives of the 1980s and invited participants to create works in response to the presentations.
The community engagement project looking at this area was BAM BAM! , a fanzine created by artist Barby Asante with members of Tate Collective. It explored exhibitions by black artists at the Brixton Art Gallery in the 1980s. The process began with a walk in Brixton to see the site of the Gallery and take in the sights and sounds of the area. The participants then returned to 198 Contemporary Arts to research issues around the representation of Black art in galleries in the 1980s and how this related to the current situation. Rita Keegan and Keith Piper, two artists who were involved in increasing the visibility of black artists in the 1980s, met with the group and showed some of their work. They talked about their experiences at Brixton Art Gallery, where Rita curated The Mirror Reflecting Darkly (1985) and Keith exhibited in The Third World Within (1984) and Creation for Liberation 2 (1986). The group later visited Tate Archive to look at their collection relating to work by black artists during this period before going back to the studios at Tate to create the fanzine. Each participant made their own individual page drawing from these testimonies, their visit to Tate Archive and their own personal research. Produced in a limited edition of 100 copies, the fanzine was made using the same methods that would have been available in the 1980s, i.e. good old fashioned cut and paste techniques and a photocopier.
In September 1983, Brixton Art Gallery held the first ever UK open exhibition specifically selected on the basis of the artists being queer. A strong lesbian and gay presence continued in the gallery, with two more open exhibitions – No Comment (1984) and Against the Odds (1986) - being curated by lesbian and gay artists in the 1983-86 period. Since photography was a prominent component of these shows, it was decided that the Queer Pulse community engagement project should take the form of a series of three photography workshops aimed at anyone with an interest in LGBT history. Participants (who were predominantly gay or lesbian) learnt about composition, style and studio lighting techniques from commercial photographer Nadia Attura before taking photographs of each other. A number of LGBT artists from the Brixton Artists Collective whose work had been shown at the Gallery in the 1980s came into the studio to have their portraits taken, which gave participants the opportunity to talk to them about the history of lesbian and gay artists in London and elsewhere at that time. Their accounts were recorded and used to illustrate the exhibition of the portraits in book format.
In addition, memories of the gallery were collected by inviting members of the public to create postcards illustrating their memories of the Gallery, Brixton and the 1980s. This revived the 1980s practice of ‘mail-art’ whereby miniature artworks were created and mailed in as a means of allowing a large number of people to participate in exhibitions at minimal expense. One of the original members of the Brixton Artists Collective, Stefan Szcelkun, worked with Brixton-based photographer Andy Martinez to design a programme for 15 local young people to film and interview artists who had shown at the Brixton Art Gallery in the 1980s. A DVD was produced, and the unedited interviews became part of the Brixton Art Gallery’s archives to be handed over to Tate Archives at the end of the project. A group of artists who worked for London Underground, hearing that British Rail had once rented space to the Brixton Artists Collective, were inspired to put on their first art exhibition as part of Brixton Calling! Calling themselves Out of Uniform, they created artworks similar in design to London Underground posters.
The project culminated in a final exhibition of original BACA archive material and new artworks in November and December 2011 at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning. This included five Archives installations by those members of the Brixton Artists Collective who formed BACA, namely Teri Bullen, Guy Burch, Françoise Dupré, Rita Keegan and Stefan Szczelkun, as well as the projects already described. For example, Teri Bullen exhibited material from the Textiles: Making & Meaning and the Soweto: The Patchwork of Our Lives shows alongside a modern banner created in the same spirit of feminism and social protest. Françoise Dupré and Rita Keegan collaborated on creating a collage that brought together archival material from the exhibitions curated by the two women’s groups in the 1980s with photographs of the meetings held at the Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University and the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths’ College during 2011.
Guy Burch and Francoise Dupre (eds), Brixton Calling! Then & Now: Brixton Art Gallery and the Brixton Artists Collective, 2011.