My original idea was to fill up a large window in an unoccupied shop in Leeds city centre.
Having knocked around in Leeds for over 40 years I hate seeing empty shops. They become a hole in the high streets, filling up with the detritus of indifferent passers-by and corners overflow with old or soiled newspapers, empty cans, the odd street hardened pigeon, and in one case, a mans shoe with no laces, all items quietly creating mini mountains in the doorways.
As time passes by the windows become opaque, smeared with grime and dirt and all semblance of what was becomes a dirty shell. But more than this, empty shops become a fragmented mirror, reflecting the despair, despondency and emptiness that lies at the heart of our go-getting, got to achieve at all costs, ever so modern capitalist society (in my humble opinion). As a lover of graffiti and quirky tags I asked if I could use an empty shop window to create a huge message board with quotations from black British music, poetry, narratives, and Caribbean proverbs. I would display a range of curvaceous figures wrapped in skin ranging from blue black to my own weak latte. Afro, corn rows, goddess braids, weaves, shaved heads and natural hair would adorn the heads of the women and out of their mouths would flow facts and stories about black living, past and present. After all, black people have lived in Britain since the Roman occupation and the main protagonist of Christianity – Jesus – was neither white nor English (sorry folks, no pale skin, blonde hair or blue eyes on the Son of God. Jesus was a black man and he was Dread).
This was the plan and I could see it in my minds eye. The unloved windows would be washed before use (mental list: washing up liquid, bottle of water, bucket and sponge), all dried down with old towels (check airing cupboard, ask around friends and see if they have any rags spare) and then I would have my list of Caribbean proverbs and stories, influential black and mixed heritage poets and writers, Jackie Kay, Bernardine Evaristo, Jean Binta Breeze, Patience Agababi, Merle Collins, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Kelly Brown Douglas, Karen Baker Fletcher, Dorothea Smartt, E R Braithwaite, John Agard, David Dabydeen, Paul Gilroy, Anthony Reddie, Robert Beckford, David Olusoga to name a few, and believe me, the list could carry on for pages.
I will create a small, but significant space, full of colours and contrast using poster paint, I enthused to the Love Arts person. A space where black and mixed heritage peoples could walk by and say “that’s part of me” and “I am included in a canon of songs and words that speak aloud about my issues, my problems, my weights that hang low around my neck and it is here in Leeds, in art, through word and in deed and I am valued and legitimised.
My shop front would not be fitted into a convenient corner of a library, university, school or museum and would be more than a collection of objects brought out each year for Black History Month with the leftovers of someone’s spit as they dusted it off with a part-used tissue in preparation for the weeks celebration of things that need to be included so boxes can be ticked and privilege and righteousness restored. Instead, I rejoiced into the telephone, it will be a celebration of the spirit that makes a way out of no way (https://nmaahc.si.edu/making-way-out-no-way) . For when you continually crush a people you also crush the soul, that part that craves to be whole and connected with the deity of your choice and to each other as a living construct through love. When you live in a racist society, believe me, you learn how to make a way around, through, above and below the indifference, arrogance and othering that goes on.
Armed with my overflowing notebook holding between the pages those quotations that are not etched in my heart, I would set out, on my tod, into Leeds town centre with cleaning materials in one hand and a box of cheap poster paint from Wilko’s and some old paintbrushes in the other.
I was prepared to clean up Leeds town centre and make it a place where blackness is visible, celebrated and safe.
What went wrong? Well, it turns out it is just not that simple. Empty shops are a magnet for rats and other vermin. They can be used by homeless people either as places to rest or as toilets so I might need more than a bucket of water and washing up liquid. The shops might not be structurally sound, I couldn’t be left alone in the shop to paint without someone there for insurance reasons. Landlords can be tricky … the list went on and my ideas began to crumble. As a woman who prides herself on thinking most things through to at least three points ahead I just hadn’t thought of the practicalities of inhabiting an empty shop to make art. Also, the co-ordinator patiently explained, there is the issue of getting the art work off the surfaces, as landlords might not appreciate political art work prominently and permanently etched on their windows.
I was told that there are a couple of shops who willingly hand over their shop window for the duration of the exhibition but, and this was heavily emphasised, it can’t be permanent ink and I have to be aware of where the shop is situated. So no Sharpies (one of my main art tools) and no vaginas or breasts if the window was going to be in a family friendly place. Used to compromising (you soon learn as a black child in a white-led environment that when a black person doesn’t compromise you are quickly labelled as ungrateful, angry, ignorant, violent, and a threat to society) I quickly did a re-think. The poster paint could stay (easy to wash off, cheap and readily available) and I would just work in one of the friendly shops that Love Arts already has links with.
So having put in a proposal of what I wanted to do (draw lots and lots of black and mixed heritage female forms interspersed with black and African American narratives, phrases, stories and proverbs); why I thought it needed to be done (to create spaces for dialogue and education surrounding black British achievements and raise some of the issues facing mixed heritage identities in Leeds); and how I intended doing it (erm, give me a window and I will bring the poster paint and off we go) I sat back and forgot about it for a couple of weeks.
Now I am a very visual person and I am aware that this blog post has all been text based. The reason for this, in case you like me have never written a blog before, is it takes so long to do especially when you worry that the words might be the wrong ones, the phrasing might be too convoluted, and of course, what if someone hates all this and shatters my carefully constructed barricade. In order to speed the process along I am not going to censure myself as much and just get the words down so hopefully future posts will become more frequent and I will have more time to put in pictures of things that worked and things that went wrong – and I have a lot of both.
In the next post I will reveal the journey I went on with poster paint and how it looked like it would work – really it did, and show you how and why it didn’t with examples. I will start talking about the proverbs I am going to include in the final piece and what they mean and why I have included them . But for now this is enough and I am going to publish this without spending two hours proofreading and instead, I am going to use the time to walk the dog. If you have any questions or requests around the quotations or issues I have mentioned then please feel free to get in touch. In the meantime – take care.