Interwoven Cultures

The following article first featured in January 2004’s issue 5 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.

This article calls for more interconnections and cultural sensitivities linked to policy of agencies like Arts Council England and through funded exemplar community projects like Panopticons that contribute positively to the diversity and evolving cultural makeup of England’s Northwest.

Interwoven Cultures – A call for increased integration of diverse community arts and culture in regeneration schemes

An absolute commitment to sensitivity and community liaison in the complex field of urban renewal should go without saying. However, the invaluable role played by the arts and culture, within the highly polarised field of what is sometimes called ‘arts-in regeneration’ or ‘community arts’ often doesn’t go without saying at all  – and it is work still seen by some myopic types as tokenistic offerings made to a social class, the late Dennis Thatcher once called, “the great unwashed”.

Nowhere is this need for cross-cultural consultation greater perhaps than in the North, where in the face of bourgeoning housing renewal schemes – all part of the North of England’s huge Approved Development Programme – the complex ethnic makeup of our communities poses simultaneously both the prime potential and problem within the brief. Our ‘North’ is now reportedly home to 17% of England’s Black and Minority Ethnic population, whilst this year, £40 million has been allocated by the Housing Corporation under the Regional Housing Strategy, to begin to provide new or improved homes for their households.

Inherent within such a comprehensive fast-track approach are many risks – not least of which is the danger of further unleashing the latent xenophobia of a parallel minority of self styled “Native British”. Indeed, with the British National Party now holding a fairly significant claim on boroughs like Burnley, the rise of this new fascism needs to be stemmed quickly at it’s root through conciliatory and yet challenging programmes directed at all affected communities. It is Arts Council England’s belief that the community arts can provide the ultimate engagement tool in this process and it is working alongside other agencies and partnerships to begin to deliver a parallel programme that aspires to help unify our terrifically dynamic and diverse region.

The Panopticons competition is a small part of one such ambitious arts programme, and which is currently being coordinated for the East Lancashire Partnership by Mid Pennine Arts of Burnley. Originally featured in Septembers issue of Prospect NW, this public art project has now begun to take on a life and momentum of its own with the first two of six projects being prepared for further consultation and development prior to implementation. One project, proposed for the highly innovative Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, is called ‘Colourfields’ and is to be located at Corporation Park in Blackburn – it was created by architect Jo Rippon working in conjunction with artist Sophie Smallhorn. A brightly striped DNA of artwork is integrated directly into the physical paving of the redundant cannon battery, an idea apparently conceived to evoke links between the Cotton-Town heritage of Blackburn and the vibrant colours woven here into the saris that were ironically then exported to India from the early twentieth century. Today the sari symbolically represents just one element of the new cultural weave from the towns community – all of which was highly visible at the Mela held within the park itself in 2002 and which attracted some 70,000 people.

In 1931, following 10 years of boycott and anti-British trade duties being applied by India; the Lancashire cotton industries were beginning to feel the first pinch of a terminal decline towards long lasting recession and industrial decay. In September of the same year, bonfires of Lancashire cotton had raged throughout India prior to Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Britain to represent his Congress Party at the Round Table Conference. Gandhi was later to travel by train, dressed in his symbolic hand spun cotton dhoti, to Blackburn where he visited mills in Darwen to voice the Indian sub continents case and to reassure the people of Lancashire of India’s optimism over Independence and it’s ultimate desire for cultural and economic harmony with historic partners.

There is now a similar optimism set around the current rapid rate of renewal in the Northwest, and evidenced by organisations such as CABE recently committing personnel to new partnership working in East Lancashire. Similarly, the ambition for Arts Council England is to positively harness this momentum and to build a legacy of creative arts practice, set within physical place making, to reinforce philanthropic ambitions for a sustainable cultural and economic harmony – Ironic how such things have a habit of coming around full circle in the process of time.

Categories: Writing

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