The Road Ahead for public art

Reflecting upon the question of statues in the public sphere, I have decided to tell you about my work with commissioning organisation Creative City.   

piece from The Road Ahead, in situ, Whiston Rd. E2

I have always been interested in the question of who gets to decide how we interact with the urban landscape.

About 12 years ago, I co-founded a company to commission and create meaningful participatory public art projects, particularly in my local area. We called the company Creative City and our first project was called Newspaper House. We wanted to draw attention to the plethora of free newspapers that were being given out to the public at that time, which, because they were never appropriately collected and recycled, were creating an enormous amount of urban waste. We undertook a lot of research on what happened to the papers once people had finished reading them. I’ll never forget what it was like to ride the District Line from one end to the other and see exactly how much paper ended up in Richmond and Upminster by the end of the journey.

Sumer Erek building the Newspaper House
Sumer Erek building the Newspaper House in Dalston

With that in mind, we commissioned British-Cypriot artist Sumer Erek to come up with an idea for using the papers in an art installation, which would involve public participation. Sumer came up with the idea of the Newspaper House. He invited everybody to bring their discarded newspapers (particularly though not exclusively the free papers), and, using a unique technique, to roll them into logs and use this to build a log cabin. Eventually, it was unveiled in Dalston’s Gillett Square. It was a remarkable piece of work, and later that year we took it to the Liverpool Biennial.

the Newspaper House at the Liverpool Biennial. photo Sumer Erek.

Newspaper House got a considerable amount of international recognition. It was covered by every media outlet from the BBC to the CBC to CNN, and press in almost every language imaginable. Not only was it fun and exciting to work on the project, but it also brought together vast numbers of people across Hackney’s very diverse communities. People of all ages participated, and the response from local community organizations and businesses was immense. If there was ever a doubt that we have a real community here that was dispelled through the Newspaper House. It was a real London landmark. [See more here ]

Newspaper House – showing the log structure; photo Nazir Tanbouli

A few years and a few smaller projects later, Creative City came up with another idea. The landmark Haggerston and Kingsland estate was going to be torn down and rebuilt by London and Quadrant Housing Association. The project was already well known as a site of art because of Fugitive Images’ I Am Here project, which put photographs of all the estate residents in the boarded-up windows of empty flats, particularly those facing the canal. I Am Here was another widely recognized project; I wrote an essay about it for the Critical Cities Volume 2 publication. So, it seemed natural that Creative City would get involved with Haggerston Estate. We proposed to London and Quadrant a series of public artworks sculptural in nature, and they accepted. We then embarked on a commissioning process to find a sculptor who would not only do justice to the site but also one willing to work with the residents of the estate. After an exhaustive search, we found Bobbie Fennick, a stone carver of immense skill and a deep understanding of her craft. Bobbie was also local, working out of a nearby workshop, and she knew the area very well. She soon established herself as a vital member of the Haggerston community. She ran several consultations inviting local residents to work on designs to be carved in relief onto the stones and allowed us to document all aspects of her project, including going to Wales to locate the ideal pieces of stone.

sourcing the slate, photo Elam Forrester

The Road Ahead, also known as the Haggerston Stones or the Haggerston Monoliths, was finally completed late last year. Our plans for a spring ‘artwalk’ were scuppered by COVID, but we still hope to make that happen, with a comprehensive website and guide.

Bobbie is a fantastic artist and artisan. We chose her based on her evident skill and expertise in stone carving, but also for her desire to work with the community. It was an added bonus to Creative City that she was a woman artist, and a woman of colour because she managed to create a secure and inspiring presence for the young people in the area. Let’s face it, we rarely see a female artist working in stone. Almost as infrequently do we see artists of colour in the London art world, though there are plenty (the old Haggerston estate had murals by Andy Seize and Naz Tanbouli in situ). I know this is changing, and I’m happy about that, but things only changes when people make it so.  

Nazir Tanbouli with one of the Kingsland Estate murals

We continue to interrogate our lived environment and the urban landscape in which we live. As citizens, we need to understand that we must take possession of our own environment: we have to demand that it looks and feels appropriate to us. We have to decorate it with things that are meaningful to us and are not imposed upon us. Artists have to be part of the community; they have to be embraced, and they have to embrace. Creative City has shown that it can be done, although it takes a lot of support and indeed money to do it properly. We were very fortunate to have funders who believed in what we were doing and, most importantly, believed in the artists. None of us ‘got rich’ doing this, but the artists were properly and fully paid, and I can say for everybody concerned we all feel that it was really worthwhile.  

Bobbie Fennick; photo by Elam Forrester