Digital montage displayed as a 16 x 12ft (4.8 x 3.6m) photomural. Produced with pupils from George Green’s School in East London. Working with a group of culturally mixed teenagers, the project dealt with issues of culture and identity, commonality and difference in an inner city area fraught with racial tension.
West Meets East proved so popular locally that we produced an exhibition documenting its making to tour schools and community centres. At that time the British National Party was proposing candidates for local council elections on the Isle of Dogs in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Riots were breaking out and unrest in this area was regularly featuring in the news. On seeing the West Meets East exhibition the Head of Art at the Island’s only secondary school requested a similar project, this time on the theme of anti-racism. Concerned about the possible inflammatory nature of this theme and drawing on my training in conflict resolution, I reworked the theme to address the notion of difference. My aim was to enable the project to provide a ‘safe space’ where individuals in the racially mixed class in a volatile atmosphere to interact without conflict.
We started with collages expressing who each student felt themselves to be in whatever way they wished, though within the boundaries of respect for others – a theme later developed through projects such as VOLCO. The border device used in West Meets East again proved useful, combined imagery from the collages reproduced under the teacher’s instruction through various printing techniques. A ‘border of difference’ was constructed using Photoshop to combine the imagery produced by each participant, a process made possible through significant advances in technology since the previous project. The concept for the centre image was again developed through one-to-one conversations and the question, ‘If in ten years’ time you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?’ Almost without exception each pupils expressed a desire to remain on the Isle of Dogs as a positive place to be with good social networks. Not one participant referred negatively to the existence of other groups. As in West Meets East the young people’s means of production – this time an art room paint palette – became the central image with the addition of a brush stroke in the shape of the river as it flows around the Isle of Dogs. This picked up the various colours as it traversed the blocks of paint, ending not in a muddy multiculturalism, but rather a rainbow, where the vibrancy of the colours was accentuated by their coexistence. At the same time a poster being used in the elections to counter British National Party publicity came to light, depicting a similar ‘rainbow river’ with the caption Celebrate the Difference. The leader of that campaign turned out to be a teacher in the same school and with the blessing of her campaign the young people named their photo-mural Celebrating the Difference. At the photo-mural launch campaign members gave out rainbow ribbons that they had used in the council elections.
While the project could only play a small part in addressing such serious social rifts, the participants were certainly proud of their joint creation. They could see that their image, translated into a photo-mural and prominent in the midst of their community, was aesthetically very pleasing. Furthermore, its resonance resulted not only through their different contributions, but from the very nature of their differences. Its public siting allowed them to witness themselves making a visually powerful statement back into their community, and began to consolidate my own thoughts regarding the role of aesthetics at the service of social change.