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May 08 2012

Art project brings back memories of Latin America

Hispanic people in Leamington Spa are working with a textile artist to create artwork that reminds them of home

The members of Club Amigos meet in Leamington Spa every second Saturday of the month. The group consists of about 30 people who are mostly from Latin America – Peru, Cuba, Mexico and Costa Rica – and they meet to engage in creative activities aimed at passing on their Hispanic language and culture to their children.

The group has recently been collaborating with textile artist Deirdre Nelson on artwork that reflects the members' conflicted relationship with the notion of home. Nelson is one of a number of artists involved in the Making Moves project – a craft development initiative across the West Midlands led by Staffordshire county council and Birmingham-based craft agency Craftspace.

"We were asked to come up with a project [in Leamington Spa] that would involve and engage the migrant group, and promote the group," explains Nelson.

She encouraged them to draw things that reminded them of home. Some drew everyday objects from their life in Britain, while others were inspired by the countries their families had left. "There was one boy, Alex, who drew a picture of Cuban Indians on a mountain in Cuba because that was where his parents were from," says Nelson.

The drawings are scanned and digitally printed on to a large tablecloth that the group embroiders. "I was amazed at how open the men were to stitching; we had some fantastic sessions where fathers and sons stitched together," says Nelson. The group is meeting this Saturday to celebrate the project and to see the final work.

Nelson has also engaged with Leamington Spa's Portuguese community, who came over to work in service stations along the M40 when the motorway was being built. In her research, Nelson stumbled upon the story of Portuguese love hankies. Traditionally, when a Portuguese woman saw a man she took a liking to she would embroider a handkerchief and embellish it with words and flowers and present it to the man who would then wear it in his pocket. Any other woman seeing him would then realise he was taken.

Traditional

Nelson learned traditional stitching and has created a pattern for a traditional napkin that is being printed on to disposable napkins. "There are lots of Portuguese cafes in the town, so I will give them out to them and that way the work will be seen and spread out across the community," she says.

The public will be able to visit the Making Moves touring exhibition of work starting at Stafford railway station in September. The tour will continue in other community venues around the West Midlands until August next year. 


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March 25 2012

Children's Lives

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Childhood is a country every adult has visited but can't go back to. Throughout this evocative exhibition, which explores children's lives from the 18th century to the present, its inhabitants stare at us from paintings and photographs, challenging us to remember how we felt when we were their age. The curators ask some big questions – what is a child? What is the meaning of childhood? – but the subjects themselves aren't interested in such theorising; they want to skip away from their homes and schools, escape adult supervision, and be free.

At the entrance you're met by a huge image of six kids, three boys and three girls, standing above the photographer, looking down into the lens. Are they inviting us in? Or begging us to leave them alone? They're 1960s kids from Sparkbrook, one of the poorest parts of Birmingham, but there isn't a hint of self-pity in their defiant expressions.

The show opens with a Reynolds of two red-lipped brothers and a Gainsborough portrait of a simpering heiress cuddling a lamb in a leafy landscape.Opened on a table nearby, a 17th-century parenting manual tells us "the duties of children towards their parents". Here are children as adults would like them to be: cute and mute. Turn a corner and you're confronted by a very different version of childhood: urban, poor, hungry. Nick Hedges's photographs of homeless children were commissioned by Shelter in 1969; his subjects are tucked five-in-a-bed or clambering over the cramped furniture of a tiny flat. Family life is captured in Bill Brandt's evocative images commissioned by the Bournville Village Trust and some beautifully crisp photographs by Lisel Haas, a German-Jewish refugee who came to Birmingham in the 1930s.

The exhibition is drawn entirely from the city's archives, which is both a limitation and a strength. At times, it feels like a hotchpotch of material that happens to have been on the shelves; prints by Munch, Picasso, Kollwitz and Rego have been bundled in here simply because they feature children. And if the curators were seriously going to consider a question like "What is a child?", they would have to range much more widely across history and different cultures.

But the narrowness is also a virtue, giving a tight focus to a vast subject. The big questions might not get answered, but we're left with a vivid impression of individual personalities, a particular place. These are Brummie kids, their play mostly limited to the street and the park, their lives cast in the mould of this big, grimy city.

Many of them have to work. Here is a crowd of chimney sweeps, their faces covered in soot, celebrating the May Day holiday. One boy sells newspapers on street corners, another delivers 3,000 letters a day around the Bournville site. Two melancholy kids are working in a factory, piecing together toys to be bought and given to luckier, wealthier children.

They find fun where they can. A funky Norman Neasom watercolour from 1942 shows a bombed house swarming with delighted boys exploring new playgrounds among the rubble. There's a glorious 1890 photo of a strong-chinned escapologist, watched by an expectant crowd of boys in flat caps and a single taut-lipped girl.

In stark contrast, anonymous photographers capture mugshots of the children who have been handed over to Birmingham's orphanages and reformatories. Thick ledgers offer melancholy details of their lives, giving dates of birth and a few necessary facts: "Treatment of the Child by Parents: Kind. Character of Parents as to Honesty, Sobriety, etc: Good."

Strict records describe who was punished and for what. Poor Charlie Green, given "1 night in cell and 8 cane strokes" for the crime of "stealing Bread from the Bakehouse". Worst of all is a fat volume from the Birmingham Institution for the Blind, propped open on a page for 1908, showing how 13-year-old Alice Crumbley was caned on three separate occasions for insolence, laziness and disobedience; being blind was no excuse.

Things weren't much better for kids in ordinary schools, standing in lines or crammed into desks, stuck in buildings whose windows couldn't be opened because the air outside was so thick with smog. And if you dared disobey your teachers, you'd be beaten, forced to stand in a corner, or put in the finger stocks, a pair of wooden knuckle dusters that trapped your hands behind your back and kept them there till you could recite your lessons.

After all this gloom and terror, it's a relief to come to a room devoted to play, creativity and imagination. Shelves hold books, games, dolls, a Rubik's Cube and a little model of Darth Vader. The final wall is dominated by a creepy painting by Ana Maria Pacheco, "In Illo Tempore". A young girl in a party frock stares wide-eyed at us, not daring to turn around and confront the murky, masked figures cavorting behind her. It's a perfect reminder of the potency of a child's imagination, the mysterious forces that well up inside us all, whisking us away from mundane reality and taking us to a land of giants and goblins, witches and wolves. Wherever we grow up, whatever our background or circumstances, we live where the wild things are.

Josh Lacey is an author of children's books including The Island of Thieves


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July 10 2011

World of leather

Heavy metal was born in the Black Country when its furnaces still blazed. Now the area is celebrating its heritage – with a raft of gigs and exhibitions. Stuart Jeffries straps on a Flying V and goes back to his roots

When Mark Titchner was a boy, he spent hours watching Black Sabbath's Master of Reality album rotating on the stereo of his Dunstable home. Not so much to revel in frontman Ozzy Osbourne's Lovecraftian horror, or the guitar virtuosity of Tony Iommi who, only four years before the album came out, had lost the tips of two fingers in an accident at a Birmingham sheet-metal factory.

No, it was the spinning label that captivated Titchner. "It was my first experience of rotoscopic art, and it floors me every time I see it," he says in his east London studio. The label, known as the "Vertigo swirl" after the record label that released Sabbath's albums, is a roto-relief, cribbed from those made by Marcel Duchamp. "I used to put it on the turntable and spend a nice long time looking into it, rising and falling with it into the abyss."

That youthful fascination feeds into Titchner's work in his new solo show, Be True to Your Oblivion, at Walsall's New Art Gallery. It's part of a sprawling season of exhibitions and events celebrating Birmingham and the Black Country as the birthplace of heavy metal. I'm particularly looking forward to Hell Bent for Leather: Judas Priest and the Heavy Metal Look at Walsall's Leather Museum, which will, fingers crossed, tell the neglected story of fetish gear, homosexuality and heavy metal.

Little Mark's Sabbath records inspired much of the Turner nominee's later artistic practice. His 2006 piece Ergo Ergot, to be shown in Walsall, consists of two large spinning roto-reliefs that form a geometric arrangement called the Titchener Illusion, after 20th-century psychologist Edward Titchener. "He's no relation," says the artist. "The illusion is that a circle surrounded by other circles looks smaller the larger the surrounding circles are."

This optical illusion is especially striking when, as in the case of Ergo Ergot, two circles of the same size are placed side by side, and then surrounded by circles – small circles on one, larger ones on the other.

I'd come to Titchner's work through his banners hanging outside Gateshead's Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, screaming bracingly fatuous messages such as "The Future Is Behind Us". Like Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer, Titchner in his text-based work establishes what he calls "a dialogue about how you receive thought and ideas". He's had sour fun recently with banners subverting the government cuts agenda – images of them feature on his blog.

One new work at Walsall will be a video portrait of Nic Bullen, founder member of Birmingham grindcore band Napalm Death. It consists of an extreme closeup of Bullen singing, slowed down so you can see his muscles working as he silently bawls – Titchner has muted his friend. The artist was inspired by Billie Whitelaw in Beckett's Not I: "All you see is that terrifying babbling mouth."

Before we carry on, let's define our terms. Grindcore music is not grime. Grindcore is a stupendously fast anarcho-punk music drawing from death metal, industrial music, noise and hardcore punk. It arose in Birmingham in the 80s (probably not as a response to Duran Duran, but you never know). Grime is dance music originating a few bus stops from Titchner's studio.

Is that a metal turd?

What's the allure of heavy metal? "The sensibility of metal has a darkness to it that draws me, but it has a social dimension – particularly as you get into the grindcore end of it. There's anarchism, but nihilism is far away."

I was brought up in Birmingham from the 1960s to the 80s, the very period during which some of the region's greatest metal bands – Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Napalm Death, Godflesh, Diamond Head – were making ears bleed worldwide. I never claimed this music as my heritage since I regarded punk as deflating its pretensions.

"That's only one way of telling the story," counters Titchner. "Another is that after punk came these grindcore bands who said punks are effete – let's go faster, be angrier and be proper anarchists. That movement still has its hive in the Black Country."

Titchner's views prompted me to revisit my birthplace and reconsider its musical heritage. But there was an immediate problem. So much of the industry that fired the music has gone, crushed by deflationary Thatcherite budgets in the 80s. My dad's story is typical. He was an engineer for car, aeronautical and metalworking firms across the West Midlands, but spent his final years of working life as a Youth Training Scheme manager. I suspect he taught kids to manage down their expectations: the pride he took in being an engineer could hardly be theirs in this deindustrialised region.

I started at Longbridge, looking at the wastelands of the car plant that once employed 50,000 people. Then I drove over to Wednesbury to visit my nan's house. She died in 1976, but I still remember sitting on her back step looking over the fiery blast furnaces of the Black Country at night. It's all gone – that fire and unspeakable beauty. My upset intensified as I drove around Dudley and Bilston, both so leafy that they felt like the Green Country rather than the Black Country. Counter-intuitively, heavy metal wasn't obliterated by Thatcherism: after the industry that spawned it was destroyed, metal music became more political and harder to listen to – expressing, perhaps, a howl over what was lost and a rage for those who took it.

At Wolverhampton Art Gallery, I experienced a corrective to this sense of loss in a show called From Iron Ore to Grindcore. On a table was something that looked like a metal turd – the final steel cast from Elisabeth of Bilston (the last Black Country blast furnace) dating from 1979, the year the flames were extinguished for good. In the years when Elisabeth and her sisters burned, local bands such as Judas Priest did something alchemical with industrial dust, fire and noise, transmuting them into music rich with fantasy, leather, desire and metallised beats – all of which makes it sound as Wagnerian as Alberich's metalworking cave in Das Rheingold.

I play the riff to Paranoid

In the next room is You Should Be Living: the Visual Language of Heavy Metal. My favourite piece here is Nic Bullen and Damien Deroubaix's installation in which visitors can sequence short grindcore audio loops at a mixing desk and scream into microphones. At least that's what I did: the guard eyed me narrowly.

Nihilistic art will figure prominently in some of Titchner's new work in Walsall. "I've long been intrigued by what happens when language ceases to communicate. That comes from Napalm Death – their almost primal scream music is a moral standpoint in the face of language that has lost its meaning." In a world of empty slogans, he seems to be saying, screaming is more authentic, more articulate, a nihilistic subversion of prevailing values.

Titchner says his latest work was inspired especially by Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album, whose sleeve was decorated with intentionally baffling runic symbols, and by US black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room. He shows me the latter's 2004 album sleeve, featuring an unreadable hieroglyph.

"In this new work I was inspired by these kinds of metal non-typography to write strange neologisms on breeze blocks for a wall for the show. Then I carved them so it was like tomb carvings. Then I crossed everything out and it still wasn't right. So I obscured the text completely and mirrored it. I ended up with intractable symbols. It's a long, drawn-out process to arrive at a negation of words." It's the culmination of Titchner's text-based work, perhaps: instead of ironically subverting meaningless slogans, he batters them senseless. Very heavy metal.

Finally, I drove to Birmingham Art Gallery, where, in a space in which I've seen Renaissance art, is a show chronicling 40 years of heavy-metal culture. There I met the man credited with devising the first metal riff (possibly the one on Black Sabbath's Evil Woman), Tony Iommi. I shook his legendarily injured right hand. How did Iommi feel to see his music given the institutional imprimatur? "It's fabulous – but it's taken a long time. We spent a lot of time in the States because we were frowned on so much here."

Does Iommi think different bands have different riffs depending on the different metalworking jobs their members worked in? "Maybe. That might explain why Judas Priest sound different from us. Certainly the riffs I played on Paranoid or Iron Man only make sense if you realise where I worked as a teenager."

Iommi and I stood before a huge roto-relief, the Vertigo swirl. I told him that Titchner used to spend hours looking into it. "Yeah, a lot of our fans did – on dope probably."

Iommi wandered off to be feted by fans. I explored another room with electric guitars plugged into headphones for visitors to play. I strapped on a Flying V and tried to play a song I know well, Sabbath's Paranoid (it's my brother-in-law's ringtone). It sounded woeful. Clearly I need to work harder at reclaiming my cultural heritage.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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