Category Archives: culture

Strolling

I found some videos recently that I thought were very interesting. They are the work of Cecile Emeke, a black British filmmaker from London whose work explores the thoughts, memories and environments of black youth in London. They are from her series, Strolling, which follows her subjects as they interact with the space around them. In some videos, the memories from growing up within these spaces jostle with the new narratives being created as these areas become more expensive and gentrified. They reflect on identity, history, representation and the erasure that occurs at the intersections of their race, gender and skin colour. An ongoing thread is being and belonging, of being part of the African Diaspora and feeling displaced within the country they were brought up in. Her videos show the complexities of being young and being black in a culture that doesn’t acknowledge that complexity. She provides an outlet for her subjects to give voice to their own realities, and the issues that matter to them in a way that is sympathetic and authentic. Some language and topics will be NSFW.

More of her work can be found here: http://www.cecileemeke.com/

 

 

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1000 Londoners

My friend has recently made a few documentaries, which are part of a larger project called 1000 Londoners. The project attempts to encapsulate and archive the diversity of voices that represent what it means to be a modern Londoner, creating a massive social portrait of the city. These narratives portray not only the lifelong Londoners, but those who decided to make London their home. It’s a very cool project that will be updated every week.

I’ve also included a few more, just to show the breadth of voices:

Make sure to visit the site here to learn more and to see all the questions that were asked for each interview.

 

Museum Review: The Avery Research Center

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I’ve recently returned from a month long road trip across the American South, from Maryland to Kentucky and back again. One of the best places I saw was a museum and archive centre in Charleston, South Carolina. Wary of supporting a tourist industry that seemed to still uncritically support its antebellum and Confederate past in order to draw crowds that longed for the problematic glamour of plantation life, I tried to spend more time in institutions that explored African-American history. The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture was one such place.

DSCN0770Housed in a beautiful brick building around the outskirts of historic Charleston, Avery originally existed as a normal school for black young people. Avery was created during the Reconstruction period in the States, the post-war period when both emancipated black people and white people struggled in a Charleston that had been ravaged by the Civil War. Since young black people could not learn in white schools due to segregationist laws that would eventually be more commonly known as Jim Crow (named after a famous 19th century minstrel character), Avery Normal Institute was created in order to train them for teaching and professional roles. The school remained open until the early 1950s, closing in the wake of Brown v Board of Education ruling. Many Avery alumni went on to become community leaders and important local figures in the civil rights movement.

In the 1970s, some of these leaders joined with the local black Charleston community to reopen the Avery Institute as a centre that spoke not only of the Avery’s history, but also that of black life throughout the lowcountry of South Carolina. Through their outreach and activism, they were able to gain the support of the state government and University of South Carolina and reopen the Avery in 1978. The new Avery, now a research and archive centre flanked by beautiful gardens near the harbour, exists as a community space that houses galleries, the Phyllis Wheatley literary and social club, a reconstructed classroom, and an archive that can be used by students and the public alike.

I went to the centre on a whim, and was unsure of what to expect. The building itself is beautiful, possessing a dignified, academic grandeur that matched the other striking European-inspired buildings in the district. Entering the side of the building, I was given a tour by the extremely knowledgeable guide that runs the front desk. Starting off with a charmingly old video detailing the centre’s history, I was given a short tour stating where everything was (you are allowed to explore the building on your own). Impressed by the many famous photographs on the wall of iconic black figures, we travelled to the top floor, which held one of the main galleries of the building.

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I was instantly hit with envy when I entered the gallery, I could see myself working there, walking the halls every day. The temporary exhibition, titled Dust in Their Veins: A Visual Response to the Global Water Crisis, was the work of the Chicago artist Candace Hunter. A series of silhouettes outlining female torsos framed the walls, some with added installations spilling onto the floor. The work created an urgent conversation around women and children around the world who suffer due to lack of proper access to water, and the issues that result from attempting to find this limited resource, from health issues to girls being forced out of education due to sanitary problems once they begin menstruation or being needed to find water. The exhibition was moving, and I could not help but think of my privilege while I held my half-empty water bottle in my hand. The anonymous torsos- representing millions of lives deferred, usually compressed into statistical phantoms by a calamity-saturated Western public- were given life and colour, imploring the audience to bear witness to their struggle. They rested starkly against the pristine white walls and warmly coloured wood floors, incongruously lit by the cheerful sunshine outside that sparkled across the harbour.

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Passing through the gallery on the top floor led to the grand staircase of the institute, where I imagined the wonder of the formally enslaved children as they entered the front doors for the first time. The walls were lined with prints of rural black women by the famous local artist, Jonathan Green and previous lectures with low country luminaries like Julie Dash. One room had been converted into a facsimile of a Reconstruction-era classroom. I wandered around the room for a moment, gently touching the small desks and wandering around the sparse interior. The other halls were filled with prints of various black history items that shifted as I turned into a new corridor. The archive was dark, closed for the day, though I tried to no avail to glance inside as I walked by.

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Walking back into the main corridor, I went into the other gallery space, which had the Africa: Masks, Music, and Motion exhibition on African masks with related ephemera. Along the walls were prints about Mandela and civil rights, creating a connection between African and African American culture past and present, a fitting symbol of the cultural traditions and struggle that formed lowcountry culture. The masks are part of the institute’s digital archives, and have been donated over time. I was reminded of other similar exhibitions that I’ve seen over the years and how much context changes how museums can be experienced. Gone was the taint of Empire-fuelled anthropological fervour (and the path of theft and mayhem that marked the way), which always lingered in the back of my mind, no matter how much I loved the vast range of artefacts that I saw. I felt a sense of happiness and contemplation when viewing the exhibition, which felt like an attempt to reconnect the community to the types of traditions that had been destroyed and forgotten during the horrors of slavery.

The Avery was one of the highlights of my trip, and I can’t overstate what a great place it is. It’s incredibly rare to have a black cultural centre that is academic while also constantly reaching out to the community at every level. There should be a place like Avery everywhere, upholding marginalised cultures and showing that it is worthy of dignity and respect.

London is the Place For Me

By the gentle author of Spitalfields Life

Life has sped up again, pushing past an unexpectedly cold, prolonged winter and into the cautious blossoming of spring. Two months ago I became a permanent resident of Britain, my prized visa arriving with the sacred words of ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’.

My journey towards citizenship, with its hurdles, uncertainty and displacement, is reaching its conclusion. By the end of the year, I will have undergone the last of the rituals to mark me as a resident proper, as someone deserving of settlement, of placement, of belonging. I will, and will be able to say that I belong, that I can claim localities and communities as my own and believe it to be true, that I am not one of the millions of transient spectres haunting the city for a short time before drifting onwards.

This feeling of permanency and feeling whole once again- instead of feeling like nothing more than the bills, letters and data the Home Office deemed as my existence- has given me a rather large bounce in my step. I have been out and about a lot recently and feel the way I used to feel as a student, that the city is wondrous and offers limitless possibilities in every unexplored path and undiscovered territory.

All of this is to say that I’ve been doing more exploring recently. East, past Whitechapel to Stepney Green. I hid in East London Thrift while rain hurled itself from the sky and cautiously wandered when the sun returned. Off the high street, old shops-turned flats mingled with Victorian houses flanked by small public gardens. Standing beside them were low and high rise council estates, slightly worse for wear, though many had balconies bursting with plants, toys and other signs of family life.

Further down the street led to a park and Stepney City Farm, which was unfortunately closed, though I still enjoyed looking at the goats, sheep and exotic chickens. By the time I reached the farm, only a few minutes down the street, the surrounding area looked shockingly like any number of the small villages found in the countryside (minus the thatched cottages). The ancient country church stood across the street surrounded by land, and the streets were silent. Walking past the farm and back towards the high street, industrial 70s buildings returned, filling up the spaces between corner shops and inter-war housing.

In a small community centre, nestled between council estates, a voice on speaker transported me back to Morocco, to the call to prayer that engulfed the city throughout the day. A large crowd of men- fathers, brothers, sons- gathered around the building, spilling out into the car park. As they prepared, boys played and chatted, while fathers attempted to keep order. Looking forward, I could see the high street again in the distance, with its murals, shopping centres and statues.

So many experiences jostling for attention in such a small area! Such delights that a short jaunt could lead to traversing time, locality and memory! As Henry James said in his famous quote, it is difficult to speak adequately and justly of London. It is both England and outside of it, a global city that feels deeply local and tribal once you move outside the centre ( no matter where I live, I am a SE Londoner, and I bristle at anyone who attempts to slight it). It is unabashedly, aggressively multicultural, daring you to falter in the wake of its daily hustle and bustle. It remains an odd honor and a privilege to remain here, experiencing it, in all its guises. I can say with utmost certainty that I may not yet be British, but I am definitely a Londoner.

Here’s hoping that more discoveries will be made once the weather rights itself again. And on a light note, my friend introduced me to this song:

London Voices

I’d like to think that after five years, I am becoming more attuned to the variety of accents found in London, and to a smaller extent, accents found across the country (though I still get things terribly, hilariously wrong). I’ve started listening to videos and clips of various accents on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s fantastic to hear the diversity in voices on such a small island.  I think a lot of Americans still think of England as having two accents: Cockney and southern posh (maybe this is changing with BBC America), but there is so much more than that. From Liverpool to Northumberland, Yorkshire to Devon, there are so many fantastic voices here, with their own rules, slang and tones. There is also a massive range of American accents, but I think that considering the size of the country, the amount of accents present aren’t nearly as extreme. I also think that with people my age, a flattening of accent is occurring, so we generally tend to sound similar regardless of where we’re from, though obviously there are still certain geographic tics. Here are some links that may be of interest:

Sound clips:

BBC Voice Recordings

British Library Survey of English Dialects

 

Meanwhile Spaces and Reclaiming Community Space

I went to a great conference last month that was organised by Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield of This is not a Gateway. It was at times very moving (one of the discussions featured the lovely and quietly inspiring Sylvia McAdam of Idle No More), radical, thought provoking and horrifying. Throughout the conference was the question of what space is for, can it ever be neutral, and the uneasy relationship between institutions, government and the people who occupy these governed spaces.

After going to a great discussion about ‘meanwhile’ temporary spaces in Berlin, and the history of these usually radical/activist spaces (as typified by squatting in the 1970s/80s), the speakers talked about their frustration of how meanwhile spaces have been replicated globally, including London. Temporary spaces in Berlin are unique because after numerous clashes and arrests early on with squatters, the city government quickly consented to these alternative uses of space, and in many cases, funded and regulated them, allowing them to flourish in certain neighbourhoods around the city. This occurred because they realised that the congregation of young people and ‘creatives’ could help regenerate a still-developing city.

Such regulations -such as cheap rent or no rent in lieu of work/experience and long contracts with landlords/ city officials to use unused spaces and buildings- allowed a thriving music and art scene to develop in the 90s. Spaces were also created that tried to serve local communities, through kindergartens for children. The problems that occur when this model is transposed to other countries is that the underlying philosophical/political impetus to civic/urban improvement and activism through reclamation of space  is exchanged for a more corporate, neo-liberal model of consumerism and (immediate) gentrification. Leases are short-term, projects are sponsored by corporate entities, spaces tend to just house art/clothing instead of community spaces and in many cases the spaces are privitised and unavailable to the majority through pricing, location and general exclusivity.

I wonder, if in times of severe and damaging cuts by a government bent on austerity, how radical true meanwhile spaces could be in Britain. Spaces such as Bar25 in Berlin (according to the speakers) mediated between community services and conspicuous consumption through luxury nightlife and lifestyle services.  While I think cultural differences (and health and safety) would make such a pairing difficult here, having gone to a variety of feminist and activist events in the past few years, I am always amazed by the continuing histories of radical liberal spaces in London and how they continue to be used for diverse populations. Maybe in London’s case, the key to meanwhile spaces is in the past, using old institutions, libraries and working class halls to continue to encourage and nourish new forms of creativity and activism. To reuse community sites abandoned by local and national governments in order to join up communities and activists groups. It’s happened with urban farms, volunteer libraries, charity property companies and idea schools born out of squatting and activist circles. To create modern alternative spaces, there needs to be reclamation of unused public structures.

In Liverpool, the council has reached the radical decision to sell off derelict homes for £1 to residents who want to get on the property ladder. They have to agree to live in the property for at least five years and make the homes liveable. It is meant to be a more nuanced, community-based attempt at regeneration, a way to revitalise the city without gentrifying the area and the increased marginalisation of its poor. Could this work in London as well, selling off properties for a tuppence, with the agreement that the properties will be used specifically for the community? What types of spaces could be created with such an agreements- nurseries, community centres, advice drop-ins, community food centres and skills training spaces for young people? The more I think about it, the more excited I feel about the possibilities inherent in such non-permanent, shifting spaces and how we can redefine what it means to occupy urban environments.

Going Underground, Pt 1

As 2013 quickly approaches, I’ve decided to write this post in honour of the one day of the year when trains run 24 hours in order to help tired revellers return to their edge of the city. I’ve grown up with both a deep respect and fear of trains. My father was a train conductor and I have many half-remembered memories of gaily swinging around handrails in empty carriages and fearfully following my parents between cars in the New York subway.

There is something that I continue to find completely astounding about these behemoths, their quaintness and continuing technological advancement, the community and alienation that can easily be found in each carriage. It is completely true that Londoners expect a certain level of quiet on the train (though this can be adjusted for area, time of day and closeness to a holiday), and that any acts that stray too far from this generally accepted social contract will cause most in the vicinity to become aggrieved, furiously placing their noses closer to their newspaper of book, or turning their headphones up whilst pointedly looking off into the distance (of course, this changes depending on age or alcohol consumed). Despite this contract of solitude, there are still instances when friendships are forged and love is found. Its interiors act as an extension of the city, a social and historical map, forever being adjusted, improved, forgotten.

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