Who we are. . .
This project stemmed from conversations about lyrical content in the music studio at Bollo Brook Youth Centre, as well as the prevalence of racialised language amongst young people.
In the summer of 2018, young people and the art tutor at Bollo Brook Youth Centre in South Acton, west London, started recording conversations about race and racism.
With the support of The Equality Trust, the project grew into a wide-ranging and challenging exploration of young peoples’ experiences of and attitudes towards this difficult topic. During the project a number of different artworks were produced that enable conversations about different areas of the subject.
This site, developed with young people, aims to allow you to experience two of the the art works.
The Box (click to learn more)
The Box was originally a small, blacked out space you entered with the discussions playing inside through headphones. While in the box you could only see the words flashing on a screen.
In total, 30 young people took part in recorded discussions with art tutor Yasmin Dosanjh, with over 18 hours of material edited down to two 30+ minute sound files.
The Portraits show comments hand written onto photographic portraits of some of the young people, expressing how they feel different people perceive them and pass judgement upon them due to their appearance (both in a positive and negative way).
We may choose to try to signal our identity through symbols. These symbols, however, are not fixed, with their meaning changing depending on context, the eye of the beholder and the preconceptions they bring. The hijab may be viewed as a symbol of belonging by some, something to fear by others. The wearing of branded clothes might be a way to signal wealth for some, whilst for others it will show a lack of ‘class’. In the diverse streets of London, these readings often clash or interact with each other, creating a complex and contradictory social map that we all traverse.
These portraits are the start of a debate, essentially about how we order the world. They play as much with how we perceive other people’s perceptions of us as those perceptions themselves.
The project follows in the footsteps of other pieces by young people that encourage us to explore issues around us and in the wider world.
The Head was made as part of this project, as conversations broadened to include issues such as class, gender, sexuality and images of community. It looks at how we learn who we ‘are’.
Young people were asked to think about how they learnt what these issues meant to them and how they have navigated this. For many, this involved looking back into early childhood, to when, for example, a young mixed-race woman growing up in Spain had a visit from her Nigerian father. She told how all the other kids stared because they had not seen a black man before. Though neither had she. A young black man told of studying Black History Month at a predominantly white school and rather than feeling included, feeling singled out as different. There were hundreds of other examples.
We are often put into boxes depending on race, gender, class, age, (dis)ability, sexuality,… but how we understand these, how we have been conditioned to understand them, can be a very personal journey. The head is filled with some of the images that young people came up with from their own lives.
The Book is a unique record of South Acton, this time from before most of its regeneration started. Young people were given cameras to take photos of their lives, with no further instructions. The words are taken from interviews with the young people about growing up in the area. You can view it here.
The Hands explore the power of non-verbal communication and the issues that can be expressed, from friendship and inclusion to rejection and violence, passing through Black Power, sex and, naturally, swearing.
The Egg, a large papier-mâché globe, maps the countries of the world using collages that represent their historic, cultural, social and political context. It represents both the fragility and potential of our planet.
These art works, as well as The Box and The Light-Boxes, went on to be exhibited at the Seventeen Gallery in East London and some of them at Uniqlo Tate Lates at Tate Modern.
“Bollo Brook Youth Centre’s ‘Who we are, who we aren’t’ at Seventeen, Kingsland Road, is an engaging and thought-provoking exhibition that invites visitors to reflect on the complexity of young people’s identities and how they conceptualise terms such as ‘race’.
I loved the annotated portraits the young people from Bollo Brook created and I had to tear myself away from the rich audio recordings of their discussions. I was struck by the creativity that went into making the giant head that served as a centrepiece in the first room and spent some time looking at the newspaper clippings and photos that decorated it. ‘Who we are, who we aren’t’ is one of the most exciting exhibitions I have been to recently,”
Dr Aisha Phoenix, Postdoctoral Researcher, SOAS, University of London.
“The exhibition resulting from Bollo Brook’s collaboration with the Equality Trust was a most pleasant surprise. From the mixture of text and photographic images confronting side-by-side the tensions in self vs other informed identity to the cubicle demanding the listeners’ undivided attention to young people’s account of everyday racism, the exhibition reaches what other initiatives only touch upon. This is an exhibition is authentic to its subjects while never losing awareness of aesthetics and the power of the visual to communicate and frame content.”
Renata Albuquerque, Widening Participation Manager (Languages & Community), SOAS, University of London.
“We know little about how black and minority ethnic young people navigate a world where racism is part of their lived experiences. ‘Who we are, who we aren’t’ is a powerful testimony to the potential of art as a tool to give voice to their lived realities.”
Professor Claudia Bernard, Head of Postgraduate Research, Department of Social, Therapeutic and Community Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London.