Brixton Art Gallery, Brixton Artists Collective, Women’s Work
-A personal account by artist Françoise Dupré
This is a brief account of my experience as an artist and co-founder of the Brixton Artists Collective and Women’s Work, both based at the Brixton Art Gallery. The period is 1983 (when the Gallery and Collective were founded) to 1985, when I was an active member of both groups.
Following my BA Fine Art studies at Camberwell College of Art, I began searching for ways of exhibiting my work and developing my experience and skills as a community-based artist living in Brixton. The Brixton Art Gallery provided valuable experience and a context for me to develop as a young artist with a socially engaged art practice.
|Brixton Festival Art Gallery, June 1983||Françoise Dupré’s floor installation for the Brixton Festival made with carpet rolls left behind by previous business.|
The Brixton Art Gallery and Brixton Artists Collective
There are many things that made the Gallery and its Collective a unique cultural and political adventure. More than its exhibiting artists (some are now very well respected), it is its location and philosophy that made it so distinctive. The Gallery, sited right at the centre of Brixton shopping centre and market, was accessible to a broad range of audiences and artists. Managed by a collective of individuals, it was a social and cultural utopia that brought together a wide range of artists with a diversity of trans-cultural art practices.
The Gallery, at 21 Atlantic Road, was not chosen because it was a cheap place to rent and the Collective were not individuals who came together to climb the artistic career ladder.
The Collective perceived itself as existing within a very special place at a specific time. In its first newsletter the Collective described Brixton as a turning point in the cultural and political development of the British people and situated the Gallery in a strategic place. Brixton was well known for its 1981 riots and the Brixton Art Gallery wanted to promote a different and positive image of Brixton. Many of its members, including myself, lived in Brixton. The Collective perceived the Brixton Art Gallery as a place that provided a true cultural mix and where dialogues between artists and public could take place.
In 1983, I was unemployed. I had been out of college for a year and felt rather isolated. The Collective provided a support network and gave me confidence and incentive to make work that brought together artistic and social concerns. At the Brixton Art Gallery I met artists who had similar aspiration and ethics and who were, like me, from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. For me the collective became a very special community and bonds created then still exist today.
The Collective first exhibition (Brixton Artists Collective) in June 83 was reviewed in City Limits by Nigel Pollitt who portrayed the Gallery as the most exciting exhibition space in London. He described the work as lacking pretentiousness but including, “a skilled application of social commitment”.
Pluralism, openness and social commitment were indeed true values, ideals and distinctive elements of the Collective. Within the Collective there were a wide range of artists from different cultural background, nationality, race, gender and sexual orientation. There were professional artists, part-time artists, amateurs, students, old and young.
The Gallery was not part of some local or regional urban regeneration scheme imposed from above. It was a grass roots initiative that aimed to introduce and celebrate Brixton’s cultural diversity and creativity and bring to Brixton world wide artists and their work. It was a complex organization a cultural hybrid that never fitted in the stereotypical associations that Brixton had at the time. The Gallery however did receive support from Lambeth Council and the Greater London Council (GLC).
The Collective became an umbrella organisation under which a number of interest groups thrived and developed their own exhibitions. These exhibitions were allocated special slots within the Gallery’s calendar. The exhibitions reflected the Collective equal opportunity policy. Women’s Work (women artists’ group), Lesbian and Gay Group and the Black Women Artists’ Group exhibited annually. The Collective had strong and clear ethics. Proposals containing racist, sexist and homophobic work were rejected and 50% of the exhibitions were organised by and for Black Artists.
Individual members and groups took part in many of the local, national and international political campaigns which flourished in the 1980s and many exhibitions had strong links with these campaigns. These included: Greenham Common; the Miners Strike (Solidarity exhibition, May – June 1985); the occupation of the South London Women Hospital in Clapham North (Our Territory, Women’s Work III exhibition, May – June 1984); the Campaign against Apartheid. There was an extraordinary amount of consciousness-raising.
Outside groups and organisations organised exhibitions in association with the Collective at the Gallery. These included: Azanian Group (South African artists living in London); Zamani Soweto Sister Council and the Maggie Magaba Trust (Soweto the Patchwork of Our Lives exhibition,1986); The Casa Cultura Latino Americana; Creation for Liberation (3rd open exhibition, July – August 1985); The Campaign Against Plastic Bullets (exhibition November 1985); Bigos (the Anglo – Polish artists group) and Routine Art Co.
For me the most memorable experience I had at the Brixton Art Gallery was the exhibition: Soweto the Patchwork of Our Lives which took place in June 1986
Organised by Collective member Teri Bullen, it was an exhibition of patchwork quilts, appliqué made by the Zamani Soweto Sisters. As a member of the Collective, it was a privilege to have been able to contribute to this event. Meeting these exceptional women and having the opportunity to see their work and simply talk to them was an unforgettable experience.
Women’s Work was the group I was the closest associated with at the Brixton Art Gallery. An organic organisation, it came about through the creation of the Brixton Artists Collective and was founded in the summer of 1983. Women’s Work provided opportunities for unknown and local women artists. It aimed to break barriers between professional and non-professional women artists and promote women’s art. Women’s Work had an inclusive policy and all artworks submitted were exhibited.
Women’s Work’s main activities were to curate women artists exhibitions and organise related education activities. Its membership was not constant. The core members were, for many, active members of the Brixton Artists Collective.
The first exhibition: Women’s Work I (November – December 1983) was open to women living in South London. Soon we realised that there was a great demand and a lack of opportunity for women to show their work and the second exhibition: Fertile Eye (May- June 1984) was open to all women living or working in the Greater London Area (GLA). The third exhibition, Our Territory (November 1984) was a national exhibition and was radically different because it only showed work made collectively. The exhibition included women artists’ groups from Oxford, Leeds, Nottingham and other parts of the country. Altogether 18 projects were realised involving around100 women.
Our Territory (Women’s Work III, May – June 1984) exhibition
In the first 2 years, 1983 and 1984, Women’s Work organised two annual women exhibitions. From 1985 one of the exhibition was organised by and for Black women artists. The first Black women artists’ exhibition was Mirror Reflecting Darkly (June – July 1985) followed by Tangled Roots in 1986. Other Women’s Work exhibitions includes: Love, Sex and Romance in 1985 and Realising Power in 1986,
In spring 1985 work on the Women’s Work Publication: two years in the life of a women artists group began. Funded by the Greater London Council (GLC) Women’s Committee, the publication is a record of the first two years in the life of Women’s Work. I was part of the publication editorial and design team.
Women’s Work education programme was ambitious and offered opportunities to hear and meet known Feminist artists like Mary Kelly, Kate Walker, Cath Tate, Women’s Press art director Suzanne Perkins, and attend day conferences.
Through Women’s Eyes Conference was held during Fertile Eye (May- June 1984)
exhibition. The conference was chaired by Pam Gerish Nunn and took place at the Strand Centre, Lambeth Community Education Institute.
The Brixton Artists Collective and Women’s Work established strong link and partnership with Lambeth Community Education. This gave opportunities to members of Women’s Work to gain employment and teach courses for women. One of them became Liberating Life Drawing a women only life-drawing course I led from 1987 to 1993, for Lambeth Community Education at the Thornland Community Centre. Liberating Life Drawing students, models and tutor, exhibited at the Brixton Art Gallery in 1991(Brixton Station Road)
Crucial to the history of the gallery is its relationship with British Rail who owned the Gallery’s premise. Indeed for a while, short-term rent agreements were signed and the rent was kept low. BR, we were told, was prepared to spend a large amount of money on the Gallery’s interior, the rent was to be concessionary as BR contribution to help Brixton… I was not involved in the negotiations with BR but what I recall is that the Collective progressively realised that BR had no intention to accommodate our needs. In fact, following the refurbishment of Brixton Station, the conditions deteriorated rapidly. It rained in the Gallery, fungus grew on artworks and members became regularly ill.
Mark Currah in City Limits, October 1986 wrote:
“Things aren’t all together wonderful down at the gallery at present: negotiations for future funding unresolved, the leaks in the ceiling increase daily, and BR wants to put the rent up. The connection between Kevin Atherton’s sculptures – for which they no doubt shelled out handsomely – on the Brixton station’s platforms and what goes on below is obviously lost on BR. Which is a shame because the gallery’s sense of being a community’s creative focus is rarely found elsewhere.”
BR increased the rent to a level that could not be met by the Collective. The Collective decided to look for other premises and the Brixton Art Gallery closed down. The national political climate had changed too, no more GLC (dissolution in 1986), no more political will and/or power to help. In 1988 the Collective moved to the Brixton Enterprise Centre, part of the refurbished department store Bon Marché, at 444 Brixton Road where it rented an office. Some members shows were organised in the basement of the Bon Marché until the space was rented out for retail. In July 1990 The Collective moved to its last site at 35 Brixton Station Road under the Brixton Recreation Centre.
By the end of 1985, my involvement the Brixton Art Gallery and its collective had decreased and I dedicated my time and energy working with Anne Dooley on the final stage of the Women’s Work publication Two years in the life of a women artists group. It was also time for me to move on and focus on my own work. I rented a studio, began to teach part-time and exhibit outside the Brixton Art Gallery. Women’s Work had helped me to develop my interest and understanding of Feminist theories, and critical discourse and in 1988 I began to study for an MA in History and Theory of Modern Art at Chelsea School of Art and Design.
The Brixton Art Gallery and its Collective were raw and often chaotic. There were terrible arguments, upsets, frustrations, tears, physical illness, big inflated egos… But there was also a great sense of achievement and empowerment. We were often thrown into the deep end and had to learn fast. The Brixton Artists Collective was not sexy and glamorous and we did not do it for money or fame. We were there because we believe in what the Collective stood for. The story of Brixton Art Gallery and its Collective should not be forgotten as it offered an alternative to mainstream British Art narrative. For me it was an incredible, intensive training ground and a place where I could develop as an artist and an individual. My experience as a co-founder of the Brixton Art Gallery, its Collective and Women’s Work had a tremendous impact on the kind of artist and teacher I am today.
Born in France, based in London, Françoise Dupré studied in London, Sculpture at Camberwell College of Art and History and Theory of Modern Art at Chelsea School of Art and Design. She is a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the Birmingham City University (BCU), School of Art and Design and contributes to BCU Centre for Fine Art Research (CFAR) strand: Art in the Public Sphere.
Françoise Dupré exhibits widely in the UK and abroad. Her most recent exhibitions include: Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting (Museum of Arts and Design, New York and touring, 2007-2008), joie de faire (the making of stuff) (Menier Gallery, London, 2006), Knit 2 Together Concepts in Knitting (Crafts Council gallery, London and touring 2005-2006), parterres (Charles Darwin University Gallery, Darwin, NT, Australia 2004), de fil en aiguille… snath nasc (Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2003-2004), les merveilles de Françoise Dupré (Can’art galerie, Toulouse, 2002).
Her collaborative French (spool) knitting projects include: joie de faire (the making of stuff) (John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, Alexandra Reinhardt Memorial Award, 2006), Fujaan (Crafts Council England, London, 2005), de fil en aiguille… snath nasc (Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin and Kilkenny, 2003-2004).
Forthcoming collaborative-participatory projects include: Space Invaders: Exotic MK (Milton Keynes Gallery, 2008-09) and St Alfege Millenium Project (Greenwich Parish Church of St Alfege, 2008-2012)
For more information visit her artist’s pages at : www.axisweb.org