Art and politics in East London

by ninameetscafe

I normally keep a distance from anything involving the words “culture” AND “tour.” I think the real life of a city is experienced in daily errands and run-ins with strangers – not tour guides and checklists.

But a recent tour of East London’s street art surprised me. I didn’t expect to get so up close and personal to local politics. And history. You know I’m a sucker for history…

I was unaware until that weekend that much of East London is quite poor, struggling to follow the rest of the city on the up and up. Right next door is London’s financial district, whose tall steel buildings continue to “encroach” (in our tour guide’s words) upon East London’s deeply multicultural history. This economic tension is the context for a lot of the area’s art, which are like loud, visual arguments on the walls. It was remarkable how many ways a picture could give voice to things like community solidarity and respect for the past.

Here’s one way. Since pop-up street art is typically rubbed away by authorities, one local business owner (known almost iconically as “Mr. Hussain”) specifically commissioned art for his walls for permanency’s sake. Thus a street artist like Roa could spend undisturbed hours detailing the crane that now peers over Brick Lane passersby. This spirit of collaboration echoes through the entire area, with creatives and shopkeepers partnering to legitimize this more raw form of art.

It’s like business at its purest: unlikely parties banding quietly for a shared ideal.

Some pieces were louder comments on the complications of local development, specifically its conflict with historical preservation. As in countless other cities worldwide, modernity and history are battling it out over here. Local residents may support regeneration, but not at the expense of their local culture. I don’t know enough, and couldn’t possibly take sides. But I give the artists credit for spending unpaid days to honor something so intangible, something going missing.

But the most striking way I saw the street art take a stand was when its medium represented its message. The way our tour guide described a piece by Swoon was that its thin, paper-like quality invoked the fragility of people in poverty. The artist apparently chose a very delicate material so it could eventually disintegrate with the rush and rustle of a city passing by. Regardless of whether this was Swoon’s original intention or not, I was awed by how the piece could translate such an enormous social reality just by being there.

What a reminder of art’s magical ability to bring tangibility to society’s most complex issues.