Event review by Lisa Cumming

We were delighted with the turnout for our Art – Culture – Activism – Peace event at The People’s History Museum on Friday 7 October. The contributions from speakers and attendees were really inspirational and truly thought-provoking just as we’d hoped they would be. The feedback we received encouraged us to know that it was a valued event, that brought like-minded thinkers together and offered positive hope and aspiration for future endeavours. This was a much-needed forum for discussion, and we’ve no doubt the conversations will continue beyond this event, and shape the future activity of Guns to Goods.

One of our valued attendees was Lisa Cumming, Community Associate at PPC PeaceHub, University of Bradford, who has kindly composed her thoughts on the day.

If you didn’t manage to make it to the event (sorry again to all those that regretfully expressed that it wasn’t possible to escape work commitments on this Friday) then please do take a look at Lisa’s write-up below and attached. We think she’s really captured the essence of the day, we couldn’t have put it better ourselves – so we haven’t!

Thanks again to The People’s History Museum and all our speakers and contributors:  Lauren Stripling, Karen Lyons,  Dr Erinma Bell MBE DL, Julie Ward MEP,  Prof Nick Mirzeoff, Ruth Daniel, Malose ‘Kadromatt’ Malahlela, David Toothill, Raymond Bell,  Anthony Weekes, and Steve Roman.

 

Art-Culture-Activism Peace, by Lisa Cummings

‘Who are they?’ I asked one of my fellow peace trail participants after seeing dozens of extremely athletic looking men come out the side door of a Manchester hotel. I wondered if they were rugby players, given the many flattened noses, but they had a very particular sort of intensity and confidence. It turned out that they were UFC fighters heading over to an arena to fight in front of 20 000 people. The curious juxtaposition of ‘minimal rules’ mixed martial artists and a load of folk on a Manchester peace trail, felt like a fitting end for a day exploring ‘Art, Culture, Activism & Peace’ organised by ‘Guns to Goods’ at the People’s History Museum.

Guns to Goods

One of the founders of ‘Guns to Goods’, artist and academic, Paul Haywood chaired and organised the event. Paul introduced us to Guns to Goods, a collective of artists who ‘recycle metal from guns for use in the production of creative artefacts.’ If no-one intervenes gun metal is wastefully destroyed. Instead Guns to Goods intercept it, and working with foundries, transform it into artefacts that can be sold to fund community activities or ‘the revolution’ as Paul put it. To date, guns have been transformed into jewellery, commemorative coins and sculpture. Fifty melted guns were sculpted by the artist Karen Lyons into a portrait bust of Dr Erinma Bell MBE, co-founder of Carisma, a Manchester based charity that works to eradicates weapons based crime. The bust is currently on display in the foyer the People’s History Museum.

Guns to Goods are also working on ‘Paving the way for Peace’ in collaboration with ‘Mothers Against Violence’ and a hip hop dance crew. Casts of footsteps taken from dancing in wet clay will be turned into ‘metal paviers’ and placed alongside paving slabs on Manchester’s streets. A street mural dedicated to Guns to Goods has also been painted in the Northern Quarter by street artist Pichiavo as part of the Cities of Hope project. Eventually, Guns to Goods will place a small plaque at the side of each mural made from gun metal to highlight the themes of ‘war children, sustainability, the environment, homelessness, gay rights, immigration, integration and supporting refugees, existentialism, disability and conflict’ (see #citiesforhope).

Public Monuments

Karen Lyons, one of the Guns to Goods artists, then shared some of her thoughts on the relevance of public monuments. Public sculpture, we heard, is often used to bolster institutional power and control. It is far from participatory and can both marginalise and constrain notions of ‘the other’. Think of the military officer or politician striking a pose. Think of the statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes in South Africa that student activists successfully campaigned to have removed. Karen believes there is a pressing need to counter the over representation of white, male archetypes whilst also acknowledging that innovative, counter cultural work can struggle for recognition.

One option open to artists is to use familiar forms such as statues in order to critique them. Examples given, included the Christ figure (Ecce Homo) by Mark Wallinger and the very well-known sculpture of Alison Lapper by Marc Quin. Quinn, we heard, wanted to record a different sort of heroism, someone who conquered their own circumstances rather than the outside world. The idea of occupying the traditional, reminded me of Grayson Perry’s work which explores all sorts of social and cultural questions on forms from pottery to woven tapestries. Which is perhaps a fitting connection for a visual arts philistine like myself to make, given art critic Jonathan Hayes recently described Perry as ‘an artist for people who can’t be bothered with art.’

So occupy the traditional in order to challenge it. Sculpture doesn’t need to be ‘a representation of a dead, white, male figure celebrated for militarism.’ As artist Tom Price says, ‘There’s a real lack of first-hand representation or self-representation of a black man in a neutral state – if that can exist – something like them not being heroic, not being a type, not being recorded as some sort of ethnicity.’

I was feeling pretty convinced by this argument until a chat with a fellow participant in the break. This person’s partner happens to be an illustrator and potter, who doesn’t think there is anything necessarily subversive about using traditional forms and doing something a bit different, ‘what the hell is so subversive about writing some swear words on a pot?’ So what then counts as subversive or disruptive and what might just be an act of self-indulgence?

Despite knowing nothing about the literature in this area my instinct is that sometimes artistic disruption can be helpful. Something unexpected can help wake us up from a complacent acceptance of what is and imagine what might be. It might help us feel less lonely in our fears. Film maker Isaac Julian’s view is that art can help us find the right questions, rather than the right answers. Art and culture can open up a much needed space for complexity and curiosity. Whether this happens through occupying the traditional or otherwise, is for the artists to work out.

Sculpting communities

Community activist Erinma Bell moved the subject from sculpting materials to sculpting communities. Living in Moss Side and experiencing the all too real impact on people’s lives of gun and knife crime, led to Erinma co-founding the charity Carisma. The motivation for Erinma was the realisation that local people had the solution and the power to do something about the problems they were facing. And although local peacebuilding sounds obvious enough, some of the activities of international peacebuilding NGOS suggests many people still need to learn the value of the local. Erinma was able to apply local knowledge and learning from the Rotary Peace Fellow scholarship to develop a community response to gun crime.

Taking responsibility for ‘our own problems’ was a strong thread in Erinma’s approach and Carisma has engaged in a huge variety of community actions. They’ve organised gun amnesties under the banner of ‘good riddance’ and directly appealed to mothers who might have come across guns when hoovering under the bed to hand them in. They’ve visited home secretaries to challenge Government complacency and inaction on weapons based crime and share a community perspective about what’s needed. Given that the first 30 seconds of a police stop and search are crucial in determining whether the interaction is civil or violent, Carisma facilitated training for both young people and the police. When Carisma organised police visits to local primary schools, they ensured the police were accompanied by a local parent. And to counter ASBO culture, they established the ‘Outstanding Behaviour Awards’ (OSBAs) for young people. The OSBAs were made out of gun metal.

Later in the day, we heard Erinma’s colleagues from the ‘Independent Community Unit’ share more examples of community led activities. To ensure people could tell their own stories, people have set up a local radio station (Peace FM) and a film company, 9 Point TV (please subscribe if you can!). There is also an ongoing project archive the stories of elders, before they are lost forever. Capturing the tales of how it felt to first arrive in Manchester and try to build a life away from all that was familiar. There are also plans afoot for a whole host of intergenerational training, with elders and young people exchanging skills. The range of activities from organisations like Carisma and the more recently established ‘Independent Community Unit’ were hugely impressive. All delivered on the proverbial shoestring but with a shoe warehouse of passion, wisdom and belief.

Agitation

Julie Ward North West MEP came along to share thoughts on art and political change. Coming from an arts practitioner background, the talk included her own poem in response to the One Billion rising movement. One story that she shared from the European Parliament will stay with me. Julie explained that the MEP for the region that covers Lampedusa brought some objects into a committee meeting. The objects had all washed up on the shore and belonged to people who had drowned at sea whilst trying to reach safety. The Italian MEP asked his colleagues to pick an object and keep it on their desk to remind them that when they vote on issues relating to refugees, they are voting for real humans.

Julie described feeling so agitated with the world, that despite little political experience, she put her name on Labour’s candidate selection list to stand as an MEP. Agitation was transformed into energy for change. Just as she described ‘Take Back Theatre’ turning their response of despair about the results of the EU referendum results into a piece of work supported by the Royal Exchange. Julie also referenced the work of ‘Theatre San Frontier’, who explore the lingering legacy of Chernobyl and ‘The Parents Circle’, who use stories, photos and other creative means to bring together people in Palestine and Israel who have lost children. A more local example are the ‘Anti-Fracking Nanas’, who given recent news, are likely to be busy for some time to come.

Eye to eye

We left the North West and headed to North America to hear New York based academic Nick Mirzeoff’s response to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Nick clarified that he wasn’t speaking for Black Lives Matter activists, rather offering his own response to the movement. And for Nick, Black Lives Matter, requires a response – encapsulated in the banner of Eric Garner’s eyes, a banner at the head of a march that shut down New York City. Black Lives Matter are claiming what Nick describes as a ‘space of appearance where politics might happen.’ Nick asked us to reflect on the role of ‘whiteness’ in Black Lives Matter. Whiteness is the ability to be unmarked, to be unquestioned and, in the US at least, an ‘ability’ not to be shot by the Police. This is a movement that challenges all the political parties and challenges us all. The movement wants systemic change, not a tinkering with policy. It also has the eminently reasonable aim of stopping the police killing Black people.

Nick’s talk was enraging and inspiring in equal measure. We heard about how militarised the police are in the US, from the use of anti-personnel tanks to semi-automatic weapons. Weapons designed for warfare are routinely used on civilians in the US. We heard how the interaction that led to the Police killing Mike Brown lasted a mere 36 seconds. We saw a photo of Darren Wilson, the police officer who had shot and killed Mike Brown. Mainstream media had selectively focused on the height and frame of Mike Brown, forgetting to mention that Darren Wilson was 6ft 5in. The photo was one that Darren Wilson himself had shared on social media to show the ‘extent of his injuries’ but there wasn’t a scratch or a bruise on him.  Wilson also described Mike Brown as a demon. And therein lies the crux, what this white officer saw was not an 18 year old lad, two days away from starting college, but someone less than human, ‘something’ evil.

The symbolism of standing eye to eye with police was also explained. During slavery, if a slave looked in the eye of a white person they were punished. It was known as ‘eye-service’. During the Jim Crow years this carried on, becoming known as ‘reckless eyeballing’ and leading to violence and lynching, particularly if a black man looked at a white woman. The last man to be convicted of ‘reckless eyeballing’ was Matt Ingram in 1952.  But astonishingly, this isn’t just recent history. Nick Mirzeoff discovered that ‘reckless eyeballing’ in relation to looking at a ‘representative of the criminal justice system’ in the eye, is still used today in order to give a harsher sentence.

Many of the actions of the Black Lives Matter Movement directly confronts this slavery rooted construct of ‘reckless eyeballing’. Think of one of the most iconic images of the Black Lives Matters movement – the photo of the woman in a summer dress stood calmly in front of two officers dressed like in full riot gear. The woman doesn’t want to be named as she doesn’t want it to become about her. She looks both officers directly in the eye and holds her gaze. A tremendous act of personal dignity and courage but also an act with political and symbolic significance.

We learnt more about other creative acts of resistance. The artist Bree Newsom scaled a pole outside the statehouse in South Carolina to take down the confederate flag. Such actions led to Walmart discontinuing the sales of confederate flags, which is a big deal given they’re often the only shop in many towns. On Martin Luther King Day (2016) Black Lives Matter activists occupied the Oakland Bridge in San Francisco and brought the traffic to a halt. This was more than spectacle, this was trying to get white people to understand how it feels to have movement curtailed. And this led to the hugely symbolic and powerful image of police cutting the chains of the black protesters. Nick also referenced the feminist activists calling for the same amount of attention to be paid to black women who are shot, using the social media hashtag #sayhername.

Another of the iconic images and slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement is ‘Hands Up Don’t Shoot’. An image that is powerful in its vulnerability. Nick described being on a march in East Village New York, near his apartment. The marchers were walking with their hands held as though in surrender, just as Mike Brown did, and chanting ‘hands up don’t shoot’. As the march passed by, people flooded out of yoga classes, cafes and bars to join the march. New Yorkers felt the pull of ‘hands up don’t shoot’ as a powerful call to action.

I was interested to learn more about the decentralised structure of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter activists describe themselves as a ‘leaderless movement’. There are 26 chapters in the US and no centralised policy. A wide range of political actions are employed from wild cat marches to direct action. One of the questions that Nick is grappling with, is how to be a good ally to a black led movement. Alicia Garcia said, ‘when black people get free, everybody gets free.’ So the Black Lives Matter movement opens up space for anyone interested in liberation and as Nick described, ‘for the movement to succeed, systematic oppression has to be dismantled.’ But beyond self-interest, Nick feels there is also an obvious question and challenge to white people, ‘what will we do to change our legacy of violence?’ What real change are we committed to making in our families, communities and workplaces?

Near the end of Nick’s talk, he shared some of the work he is doing with visual images. He is photoshopping out the people who have been killed by police, leaving only the context – the prison cell, the suburban road, the layby. At first I felt uncomfortable about a white professor editing out the image of dead black man or woman but as he talked through the photographs it started to make sense. An image of a tiny prison cell highlighted the claustrophobia and the intensity of how it might feel to be incarcerated. A photo of a wide, suburban road where a woman was shot and killed after failing to indicate when changing lane, highlighted that the triviality of the alleged ‘offence’. A closer, longer look at the context alone, connected the viewer with the absolute futility and injustice of these deaths.

Without hip hop, I’d be dead

Ruth Daniel, co-director of ‘In Place of War’ based at Manchester University, was next up. For Ruth, art is a human need, as essential as food, water and shelter. One of the questions she wanted to explore with In Place of War, is whether people make art when bombs are dropping on their heads or violence is in the streets. In Medellín, Colombia – previously one of the most violent cities in the world, hip-hop has flourished as a social movement with 2500 hip hop crews. As one of the lads Ruth got to know described, ‘without hip hop, I’d be dead.’ Ruth took us south west to hear about citizen journalism in Brazil. Midia Ninja started when young people started telling their own stories of protests and police brutality through live streaming. Midia Ninja has amassed huge amounts of Facebook followers and is many people’s trusted ‘go-to’ source for non-mainstream media.

Ruth also shared examples of creative activism in the UK. Dan Glass uses creative interventions and often quiet interventions that generate huge exposure. He once superglued his hands to Gordon Brown as part of a ‘Plane Stupid’ action leading to the most wonderful response from Downing Street that there had been ‘no stickiness of any significance.’ Glass also took lots of people who Nigel Farage had insulted (refugees, breastfeeding women etc.), to have a party in his local pub. The Nigel Farage theme continued, when Dan (who is HIV positive) dumped a load of manure outside Farage’s office after his delightful comment that people with AIDs shouldn’t be allowed in the UK.

Ruth also spoke about the integral role that art can play in protest. In Egypt, graffiti artist Alaa Awad, paints street murals of those killed in the revolution, depicting them with angel wings. During the height of the Arab Spring, activists in Tahrir Square created a theatre. And a singer kept people on the streets during some of the protests – using music to help foster courage and solidarity. For many activists, art is integral to protest. For Ruth Daniel, art can create a pause in conflict. Art can show the stupidity of violence. Beauty can disrupt the ugliness of violence.

Why is education not free?

Via skype, Ruth connected us to Malose ‘Kadromatt’ Malahlela, South African sound artist and co-founder of Keleketla! Library. Malose outlined an expansive range of art workshops to explore South Africa’s history and to relate that history to what is happening today.

Malose also referenced the student protests against the statue of that ‘very, very bad man’ Cecil Rhodes. What started as a protest against a statue has turned into a movement that asks the question, ‘why is education not free?’ under the banner of #FeesMustFall. Education gives power, so for the activists, building a post-Apartheid South Africa, needs free education. The student movement has shut down many Universities in South Africa, despite the Government calling in the military. Alongside free education, the movement wants a broader decolonialisation of universities and is calling for African-centred not Western-dominated curricula.

For Malose, art and culture have the capacity to develop, educate and challenge us, ‘we need to put culture and education in the same breathe. Through culture and education there can be unity.’

They even put lions in safari parks

We shifted our gaze from South Africa to the Southbank, to hear about the community arts activism of David Toothill from Southbank Mosaics. Their two main aims are to ‘make neighbourhoods more attractive and keep kids out of prison.’ They fulfilled the 200 year old wish of William Blake and brought his work into the streets. The premise of Southbank Mosaics is that art and design enhances our quality of life and that the streets belong to us. For Toothill, art is intrinsic to our human origins. In the buildings of Ancient Egypt and China, art and craft is an integral part of the structure, unlike today’s glass towers in many cities. Visual art has been taken off our streets, out of the external fabric of buildings and placed instead in galleries and museums.

We were asked to imagine a society without our 128 prisons and in their place 5000 therapeutic centres within communities, ‘Prisons, argued Toothill, ‘are a dead end. They even put lions in safari parks.’ Instead of punishing people, Toothill would prefer to look to people’s strengths and talents.

Toothill’s is clearly working hard at practically reimagining society through setting up the ‘London School of Mosaic’, with the world’s first degree course in applied mosaics. The degree course will be free, as for Toothill debt is a form of mental slavery. The idea is to learn a lost art, create jobs, develop critical thinking and create London’s first sculpture park.

One last thing from Toothill was a comment that perfectly framed what I feel most needs changing in our lives, ‘Equality is the principle we all believe in but hierarchy is where so many of our problems lie and yet we’re all involved in it.’ The contradiction between a professed commitment to equality, whilst actively participating in hierarchy is clear. It is a contradiction, I’d welcome further space to explore.

To the streets

A day of listening ended on the streets of Manchester. The incredibly knowledgeable Steve Roman from the fantastic People’s History Museum took us on a truncated tour of Manchester’s ‘Peace and Social Justice Trail’. Not for the first time that day, I was struck by my ignorance. I had no idea that Manchester was the first city in the world to declare itself a nuclear free zone. I didn’t know that Friends Meeting House, a place I have had the pleasure of visiting, was a first aid zone during the Peterloo Massacre. Most shockingly, given it’s so near Victoria Station, I had no idea that Cheetham’s Library is the world’s oldest free public reference library. And although I knew Marx and Engels had hung out in Manchester, I didn’t know they had sat in Cheetham’s Library beavering away on research that would later lead to the writing of the Communist Manifesto.

I Ioved hearing the story that in 1949, one of the world’s most famous singers, Paul Robeson, took to the streets and performed for 20 000 people in Moss Side, the day after he performed at the Free Trade Hall.

And so it was near the end of the Peace Trail tour when our route became entangled with the UFC fighters and spectators. When Nick Mirzeoff ended his talk, he invited us to participate in Assata Shakur’s affirmation often used in Black Lives Matter meetings. I thought of it again as the UFC fighters passed us.

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

It is our duty to win.

We must support each other and love each other.

We have nothing to lose but our chains.

Further links

Carisma   http://www.charitychoice.co.uk/carisma-12626

9 Point TV https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwO6KayUoZVN5xrD6WcmTXg

The People’s History Museum http://www.phm.org.uk/

Black Lives Matter http://blacklivesmatter.com/

In Place of War https://inplaceofwar.net/

Keleketla Library https://keleketla.org/

Southbank Mosaics http://www.southbankmosaics.com/

Manchester Peace & Social Justice Trail http://manchester.discoverpeace.eu/peace-trail-manchester/