This is a photograph collected during a project called ‘Di Deh Yasso’, an oral history project led by Gary Stewart with Lorraine Griffiths. It shows Danny McLeish, who just arrived from Jamaica in the early 1950’s, proud to come to the ‘Mother Country’. Gary had arrived at Jubilee Arts courtesy of a scheme to train would-be-community artists set up by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. (Other beneficiaries of this scheme included a certain François Matarasso). Gary had been working on the Hyson Green estate in Nottingham with campaigning black organisations active in print, performance and black cultural resistance.
At the time he wrote: “We as black people must put traditional cultural production into a black historical context determined by ourselves and confront contemporary reality by developing our black cultural production to be functional. My role as a black community artist is to assist black people in voicing themselves creatively, providing greater access, participation and opportunity to make social demands which are specified to black people through the expression of our culture. To be an integral part of removing black cultural expression from the framework which limits us through the use of Racist Domination.”
Though coming to work on the boundary of the legendary militant Handsworth, he was a little shocked to find that in the borough of Sandwell there was not even one single elected councillor of Afro-Caribbean background (nor ever had been) and there were no organised black groups of any kind. He wondered if this was a case of one step forward, three steps back.
He decided to spend time in pubs and clubs frequented primarily by the black community. Danny and his wife ran The Lodge Tavern in West Bromwich and here, over a pint and a game of dominoes, Gary and Lorraine began to collect stories.
One man from the Caribbean told them that when he first came to England he traveled on the bus free for months. He thought it a wonderful place, until he worked out that the reason was that the conductor would not touch the money proffered by his black hand. With immigration now the biggest worry among over 50% of British voters – according to a new Economist Ipsos Mori poll – it seems we Brits have a hard time adjusting to the global economy that we in part have created through the trade of Empire.
The ‘Di Deh Yasso’ exhibition (meaning There and Here) – made in cut and paste style, collaging text and photographs – toured on the Jubilee bus and was not without controversy. Each side of the Bus was bedecked with a large hand painted portrait, one of the writer Alice Walker and one based on an iconic portrait of a black man at Victoria station, having arrived from Southampton docks, confidently looking into the camera, his stylish homburg tipped back on his head. These were daubed with racist graffiti while stored in the bus garage at Waterfall Lane, Rowley Regis. There were complaints from some staff at the depot that the portraits were ‘too large’ and ‘in your face’…
While the presence of Black Arts was stirring emotions, Bev Harvey was working with a community association on West Smethwick estate. She recalled: “All these funding bodies were suddenly talking about the Black Arts. I had an entirely different connotation in my mind and intended to steer well clear…”
Once reassured it did not involve the dark arts, Bev came to work at Jubilee with Gary on the ‘Bickle’ project (and Danny provided the food for the exhibition launch at the town hall). Later in the 90’s, after initiating the ‘Sex Get Serious’ project with an early version of Hypercard, Gary Stewart went onto work in London with a new organisation being set up by Cultural Partnerships. Artec was a fresh kind of arts group, offering training in new technology. Gary went onto to be Head of Multimedia at Iniva, Institute of International Visual Arts between 1995 and 2011. He is currently Artist Associate at People’s Palace Projects, an arts organisation established at Queen Mary, University of London.