In April 1981, a Labour left group gained control of the Greater London Council (GLC), led by Ken Livingstone MP. This group is often described as a post-1968 ‘new urban left’, a generation of young politicians and activists, many of whom spent formative years supporting social movements such as the women and gay liberation movements and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. This new GLC cohort represented a source of hope for some on the left, for a radical populist renewal of the Labour party through a programme of action that would embrace new social movements, identity politics and present a challenge to Thatcherism. In 1984, the GLC’s central Ethnic Minorities Unit initiated ‘London Against Racism’, a year-long publicity campaign in which the Council produced awareness-raising advertisments and events aimed at developing policy and informing the public about the forms of racism that Londoners from ethnic minorities encountered in their daily lives. The GLC’s new arts advisors recognised that the criteria for allocating public arts funding had to change, to serve a broader public than traditionally middle-class museum and concert audiences and better reflect London’s growing ethnic diversity.
Black and Asian British artists had frequently struggled for recognition, with long-established arts institutions and funding bodies often failing to acknowledge the significance of their work and denying them opportunities to exhibit. This situation was challenged by the GLC’s newly appointed ‘Ethnic Arts Sub-Committee’ which allocated a significant part of the GLC’s overall arts budget specifically in support of projects by black and ethnic minority led arts organisations in London. Demands for equal opportunities for black artists were met with considerable resistance from some ‘mainstream’ arts institutions, so the GLC set an example by creating its own opportunities for black artists as part of the ‘London Against Racism’ year, commissioning visual artists from Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities to paint anti-racist murals in areas where black communities lived, namely Brixton, Tower Hamlets, Southall and Notting Hill. Parminder Vir, Head of the Race Equality Unit, explained the significance of these sites, “…they are areas that represent continuous struggle, against institutionalised racism, racism on the streets, and also the achievements of those communities in those areas.” The chosen artists for the different areas were Gavin Jantjes, Keith Piper, Shanti Panchal and Lubaina Himid, and each chose another black or asian artist to work alongside them.
The Anti-Racist Mural Project was unsuccessful in securing permanent sites for two of the four murals commissioned. Probably because planning permissions and secure public sites could not be achieved whilst working to the Council’s deadlines. Consequently, the murals for Southall and Tower hamlets were painted in acrylic paint on wooden boards instead, with the intention that they could be displayed at different venues as ‘mobile’ murals, which was the intention stated by the GLC in their Press Release, though it is not known if this occurred. In this mobile form the murals did not have as long and successful life as the ones painted on walls.
‘The Dream, the Rumour and the Poet’s Song’, Brixton. Gavin Jantjes and Tam Joseph
Gavin Jantjes was born in Cape Town, South Africa, “in a part of the city which no longer exists, called District 6. District 6 was evacuated and bulldozed by the apartheid state because it had the homes of some 180,000 non-white residents. They were moved out of the centre of the city to an area called the Cape Flats.” Gavin came from “a very working class background with a rich cultural mix of all sorts of religions, all sorts of people, all sorts of professions.” His parents and grandparents were “not interested in the visual arts’”, though he had an uncle who was a photographer. Jantjes went to the Zonnebloem Boys School, an English boys school set up by the Anglican Church, and afterwards attended Harold Cressy High School. “There was a great community spirit in District Six,” he says, “and I attended a children’s art centre, one of the few children’s art centres in South Africa at the time, from the age of 3 until I left when I was 22 years old. So my art experiences began at a very early age.”
Following this, Gavin studied art at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, in the University of Cape Town, graduating in 1968, and in the summer of 1970 won a scholarship to study in Hamburg in Germany, experiences which he notes were very rare for a “so-called non-white or Black artist as these terms were applied.” His printmaking work in Germany led to a solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1976, where he met “a number of involved and engaged activists and politically motivated artists such as Rasheed Araeen, the art critic Guy Brett and the performance artist David Medalla.” When Gavin came to live in the UK in the early 1980s, he also worked with the Tomlin Square Print Cooperative. In 1980 he joined the Edward Totah Gallery which forced him to leave Germany.’ and he moved to the UK to live in Christian Malford, a village close to Chippenham in Wiltshire. By this time, he was exhibiting his silkscreen print work “all over Europe’” on the subject of the anti-apartheid struggle. This work he says, “was very topical” as South Africa was considered something of a “pariah state in turmoil” in the early 1980s. In the Late 70s, Gavin began to make paintings, but “had never made a mural or painted on anything that I would call a mural.” He was invited by Parminder Vir and Paul Boateng at the Greater London Council (GLC) to create a composition for “a mural about South London, and the upheavals in Brixton.” When his design was accepted by the GLC he proposed that Tam Joseph should be his assistant to paint the mural.
Tam Joseph was born in Dominica in 1947, a country which he remembers both as a beautiful Island, and a place marked by the vestiges of colonialism and slavery. His father arrived in Liverpool in 1953, part of the first generation of Caribbean migration to the UK in the 1950s. He was a man skilled with his hands and worked as a cobbler. Tam’s family followed shortly afterwards on an ocean liner that docked in Tenerife, Genoa and Southampton. They moved to Highbury in North London when he was aged seven. He went to school at Drayton Park in Highbury where he was the first black child in the school, and there were only twelve black children in the boys secondary school he later attended in Holloway Road. Tam’s parents were poor, hard-working and frugal with money, “My mother and father never took a holiday,” he says “immigrants worked hard, for them enjoyment was a sin. You always saved for a rainy day. They were very careful.” He says that his mother and father would “probably have been considered middle class.’’ His father was “a reader” and his parents voted Labour. He noted, “People in the Caribbean knew a great deal about worker’s rights, when we came here we naturally gravitated towards workers union.”
In the late 1960s, Tam developed his skills by joining life classes with the Islington Art Circle, where he felt welcomed for his commitment to drawing, despite being the only young black artist amongst the group: “My peer group was 60 years older than me but it was great, I picked up a hell of a lot very quickly and I learnt more about drawing there than I did in art school.” Attending art school, Tam recalls that most of his contemporaries been to public school, but he had “barely heard of public school.”
He considers artistic skill a ‘great leveller’, “I draw and paint a lot better than a lot of people and always have done, that means I fit anywhere – it’s a great leveller – I could draw, and paint and sculpt, that’s where my class is. It’s not measured by the amount of money in my pocket, because if it did, I’d be in a lot of trouble! My main concern has not been to make a lot of money, but to express myself.” Tam undertook other work to support his art career, such as working as a ‘paint and trace’ artist on the animations for The Beatles’ film, Yellow Submarine. He studied Typography at the London College of Communication and this led to work in publishing as a layout artist and cover designer for successful political and economic monthly magazines such as ‘Africa Magazine’ and ‘West Africa.’
The Dream, The Rumour and the Poet’s Song
Read from left to right, the mural begins with the arrival of the Windrush generation to Britain. In the central part of the mural the images of women fleeing burning buildings and crying in despair is most reminiscent of the imagery of Picasso’s Guernica, with this mural conveying the horrors experienced by victims of racial violence in police custody, in homes and streets. In contrast, the final portion of the Jantjes’ mural design presents a positive depiction of resistance in which ‘The Poet’ of the mural’s title, Brixton resident Linton Kwesi Johnson appears illuminated by a streetlamp, reciting his work while bystanders listen.
Together Gavin and Tam consulted various groups in the area, particularly people – like Tam’s family – who had come from the Caribbean Islands to the UK at the end of the World War II. A copy of Picasso’s 1937 painting, ‘Guernica’, copied onto a wall in Guernica was an inspiration for the design as well. Gavin said, “All the various people we spoke to in the area, the guys on the street, the community leaders in the town halls, the people at the health and sports centre, the Carnival band groups, the local police, the church people. All of their ideas were somehow touched on, and I thought initially that this would be an impossible task, that there were too many things, but somehow we managed to get a bit of all of that into the design.” It was to be entitled, ‘The Dream, the Rumour and the Poet’s Song’ “.
The artists were also required by the GLC to consult with the police about the design of the mural. Gavin recalled that “The police in particular were very worried about the possible depiction of police violence against the Black community at the time of the Brixton riots, and were asking to see exactly what the design looked like. We refused to show them the design, saying that they had to trust us not to paint the police in a manner that was untrue, and that’s where we left it”.
“The mural was to be located on a long wall at 50 Railton Road in Brixton, next to a small public square and beside a children’s kindergarten. The GLC negotiated with the owner of this wall to allow us to use it. The wall was specially rendered and treated, initially to use a specific dyeing process where you impregnated the render with pigment, because it had a longer life and was more colourfast. In the end, the paint company could not deliver the colours on time and commercial acrylic paint was used, in order to meet the GLC’s deadline for the mural.”
After the wall was rendered it was washed down and cleaned, then given three or four layers of gesso, after which Gavin and Tam began to mark up the drawing onto this wall and paint it. Tam recalled, “There is a process in creation of a mural, you start off from rough, everyone does a rough. The rough is 1/10th or 1/20th or 1/50th of the whole thing, and it is then projected to the scale required. And then all the elements have to be transposed from the rough very carefully, once you’ve done that, it’s like walking up and down a stairs.” Tam said that his practical experience working as a ‘paint and trace’ artist on the animations for the Beatles’ film ‘Yellow Submarine’ had prepared him well for the task of scaling up and following Gavin’s design.
Because most other murals in London at the time were above head height, on the sides of buildings high up, whilst their’s was painted at street-level, the artists feared that it would be vulnerable to vandalism. noting that “most murals were being targetted and defaced by neo-fascist and right wing groups who didn’t like the images.” They covered the mural with layers of anti-graffiti spray, but Gavin later judged that this had been unnecessary, as after four years, the mural remained intact. The two artists had painted the mural in six weeks over the summer of 1985, using a moveable scaffold, with the bright light and heat sometimes presenting a considerable challenge.
Gavin noted the acoustic qualities of the wall, which would often reflect the sound of people’s conversations in the square nearby while the artists worked. He recalled, “So very often there would be elderly people sitting on the benches, talking about Tam and myself, working on this scaffold and painting this mural and what the mural depicted, and some of these stories were both hilarious and encouraging, because we seemed to have got it right from the comments we were hearing.” The artists were also visited daily by the local police, who they used to see patrolling the area and talking to people in an attempt to regain the trust of local residents, “It was quite clear that the police were doing a tremendous job trying to convince the local public that they were on their side, but I don’t think very many people at that particular moment in time trusted the police at all.”
The mural was officially opened in Autumn 1985.
‘Across the Barrier’, Dellow Street, Tower Hamlets. Shanti Panchal and Dushlea Ahmad.
The second mural to be completed for the GLC’s Anti-Racist Mural project was painted on an end wall of a community centre building, a former Victorian school, at the crossroads of Dellow Street and Lowood Street in Shadwell, just minutes from Ray Walker’s Battle of Cable Street mural.
Reflecting it’s surroundings, this mural acts as a window into the public and private spaces of a housing estate, depicting the complex relationships between its Asian, black and white residents. While a multi-ethnic group of children and parents are seen to interact harmoniously around a playground sculpture of a dove in the upper portion of the mural, in the lower half, more sinister encounters are taking place on the doorsteps, at the thresholds of family homes. Now obscured by a layer of brown paint, the lower portion of the mural was in fact subject to a change of design, as the local community found the content of the original sketch controversial.
Shanti Panchal’s original sketch portrayed the distressing scene of a racially motivated attack that had occurred on the nearby Teviot Estate in the borough of Tower Hamlets. In the sketch, a gang of bald white men, perhaps skinheads, congregate outside a door, one holding a crowbar aloft. Inside this home, a Bengali family are gathered watching Margaret Thatcher on the television. They appear to have barricaded themselves into their room using a table, to defend themselves against the threat of racist violence outside. Some of their white neighbours appear to be condoning the violence, watching from a floor above, and some are, according to Panchal, signing an anti-Asian petition at their doorsteps. In the final mural design however, the gang of racist attackers were replaced by a suited white man, pointing accusingly towards the Bengali family home as their white neighbours sign a petition behind him. While this could be seen as a moderating gesture by the artists, it did not lessen the mural’s portrayal of the suffering and isolation of families living under the threat of racist violence.
‘Southall Black Resistance’, Southall. Keith Piper and Dr Chila Kumari Burman
Keith Piper, a black British artist from Birmingham, was paired with Liverpool artist Chila Kumari Burman to undertake the commission to paint a mural for Southall. His design sketch in the GLC catalogue indicates the artists’ intention to commemorate various Southall organisations through references to historical events and demonstrations. The left of the sketch details labour movement activism of the older generation of Southall’s Asian population, including the Indian Workers Association (IWA) which had been active in Southall since 1956. The next sections depict the rise of Southall’s second generation of British-born Asians. Young people carry banners with slogans, and an advert is displayed for a Rock Against Racism gig featuring local reggae band and activist musicians, ‘Misty In Roots’. Placards held aloft by the crowd commemorate significant events including an anti-fascist demonstration at a National Front meeting at Southall in 1979 which resulted in the death of Blair Peach. Southall’s Hambrough Tavern is depicted on fire, in reference to the violence provoked by the infamous ‘4 Skins’ Oi!’ gig which attracted National Front supporters to the area in 1981. Women’s activism is also represented by women and girls depicted marching under a Southall Black Sisters banner.
Dr Chilla Kumari Burman was born in Walton Hospital near Bootle in the late 1950s. The family had moved to Britain when her father stopped working in India for Dunlop to take up a job at their English factory in Speke in Liverpool. Chila remembers growing up in the family home with her brother and sisters in Ash Street in Bootle and her mother taking the children to Billy Smart’s circus. There were few brown faces on the street but the working-class white people were friendly and supportive. Her father had a very welcoming attitude to other Indian people, asking them to visit. From one these friends he found work selling ice-cream and eventually built up a successful business, inviting people from India to join him, and buying houses in Formby.
Chila was in the ‘A’ stream at junior school, was enthusiastic about drawing and painting and, passing the eleven plus exam, went on to Bootle High School for Girls, “full of very bright working class girls, the coolest school to go to. I was put into the science stream but allowed to continue art.” At fourteen Chila moved schools to go to Waterloo Park where she became friends with the only other Indian there, a girl from Kenya. Here the art teacher gave great encouragement and suggested she should go to art school and so Chila attended Stockport Art School for her Foundation Year. At this time her parents were introducing boys to her with a view to marriage but Chila was determined to follow an artistic career. The art school staff had said, “You are definitely a printmaker,” and persuaded her to go on to Leeds Polytechnic to take their Graphics Course, where she studied communications design before going on the printmaking. She was delighted to be meeting students from all over the world there, and learning about colonialism from her Yugoslavian flatmate, Miroslav, and reading Nietzsche, Marx and De Beauvoir. It was in Leeds too that Chila set up a women’s refuge. After graduating she decided to study at the Slade School of Art because it was so lively and bohemian – not ‘corporate’ like the Royal College – and where she became excited by the work of Tapies. In London Chila stayed – her parents insisted for propriety’s sake – with her aunt, a nurse working and living in Wormwood Scrubs. “She was great!” Chila had become politically active; through a friend she became a member of the ‘Mukti Collective’, which was producing Asian women’s magazines, and began drawing illustrations for them, and started an association with the Southall Law Centre. She was also selling Socialist Worker on the streets. She covered issues on Ireland, was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Anti-Apartheid, and worked on Eritraen and Indian women’s issues. She could find no interest from her fellow Slade students in this work, and the School’s print department refused to allow her to print her political negatives! To this day, despite her efforts, the Slade has never appointed a black lecturer.
Then Chila was awarded a residency with Southall Black Sisters and Southall Asian Afro-Caribbean Arts Collective at their Centre where, funded by the Greater London Council (GLC), she delivered art workshops for Asian women, speaking in Punjabi, and teaching women who came in from the local refuges. She set up a unit for a course in silk-screen printing and began a course in making collages as well. It was while working here that Parminder Vir from the GLC Ethnic Minorities Unit invited Chila and Keith Piper to paint the Southall Black Resistance mural. There was difficulty finding a wall, so it was decided to paint the mural on boards – which would enable it to be done despite the limited room they had in the centre – and an advantage also, because the mural could then be folded and transported to other venues, youth centres and community centres around Southall and make a wider impact.
The artists began to collaborate on the themes and to outline the way these should be represented, using Chila’s experience and knowledge of the people and the issues in the area. “It was lovely – we worked so well together.” Chila had not worked at that scale of boards, eight feet high before. Keith took responsibility for the overall design and when he had completed drawing up the boards, Chila following his outlines took on painting the faces and figures – “I added bright Indian colours and made it ‘pop out’ more. I applied colour thick, clear and sharp, I really did think it was great.” The opening was a happy, well attended event, the mural was well liked by the Southall Black Sisters, the Afro-Caribbean Arts Collective, the Ethnic Arts Committee, and by Chila’s family who came down from Liverpool for the event. Unfortunately the mural was not destined to tour as the artists had intended and after a year it was removed to storage and was not seen again. Through the project Chila’s circle widened, meeting the ‘Race Today Collective’ and ‘Artrage’ and groups in music, film, theatre and dance and new womens’ groups. The last days of the GLC was a period of excitement, with artists, performers and bands coming from all over the world it was “a hive of political activity and the Arts!”
In 1986 Chila’s work appeared in “a really cool group show” at ‘The People’s Gallery’ in Chalk Farm, and she was asked by the owner to paint, together with other Black artists, hoardings to surround the Roundhouse. The genesis of the idea was to source artists to depict different places around the world. Lubaina Himid, Shanti Panchal, Verbena, Gavin Jantjes, Tam Joseph and Chila were asked each to design and paint a series of boards reflecting a different culture in the world, namely from China/Japan, the Caribbean, Africa, India and Asia. A vast space in the Yaa Asantewaa Arts and Communty Centre in Maida Vale was hired for the artists to paint in. To their surprise they were followed as they worked by a Channel Four film crew for the programme: ‘State Of The Art.’
“There was a great communal atmosphere – we all had a great time – Tam was such a gas – Verbena’s work was a great Picasso-interpreted piece.” Chila had eight door-sized panels to paint. “I thought my stuff was dead cool because I loved everything to do with China – animations, ribbons, graffiti, books of popular culture – nicking stuff from all over.” There was a launch, it was a hit, had a great public response, and the panels stayed up for a good while. When it was time for the panels to come down – they had begun to deteriorate – most of them disappeared. Chila took two away, images of Japanese women in kimonos holding up the world, which she gave to her mother.
Chila painted more murals after her work with Keith Piper in Southall and continues as an artist and political activist, making silk-sceen prints, banners and paintings, illustrating books and working with communities in the East End. She campaigns for Black Rights, Women’s Rights and many left-wing causes. Her’s is an influential voice encouraging young artists fresh from Art School to find some work, particularly with schools and communities. “You should get out there. Youth clubs need you big-time,” she says.
Unity Freedom and Equality, Notting Hill. Lubaina Himid with Simone Alexander
Artist Lubaina Himid, a campaigner for and curator of Black Women’s art, was paired with Simone Alexander, an artist studying at Byam Shaw School of Art, to work on this mural with an anti-racist theme for the Notting Hill area. In the original design, five black figures are striding forward under a banner marked ‘UNITY, EQUALITY, FREEDOM’, in a carnival procession or perhaps a demonstration. Cut out text plays a significant role in this design. Raining from a raised umbrella marked with the word ‘JUSTICE’ refer to activist campaigns against unjust treatment of black British and Asian people by British State authorities. A figure wearing white has significant names of black activists, writers and politicians emblazoned on his clothes. This man appears to be kicking a dustbin, uncovering hiding policemen, who are attached by threads to the disembodied white hand of a puppeteer above them. Cut out text covers the dustbin, ‘police puzzle; puppets of the state; civil war; paid poodles of oppression; NF manifesto; the law; little white lies; repatriation’. The next figure, wearing a shirt emblazoned with a rallying call, ‘The Time Is Now’, reaches back with scissors to cut the puppeteer’s strings.