This essay was written in June 1988.
The first time I walked into 19/21 Atlantic Road was in April 1983. Kevin O’Connor had collected the keys to the building a few days earlier and, meeting him there, my first thoughts were just how damp and dirty the place was. Littered with cardboard carpet rolls, pile rakes and asssorted junk, it was hard to imagine how this former carpet shop could be transformed into an art gallery.
Yet, with the rubbish cleared, lighting installed and the walls freshly painted, by the time of the first exhibition everything had changed and the potential was clear. Thanks to the generosity of the British Rail landlords we were getting 3,000sq ft of floor space and 250ft of running wall space in the middle of Brixton’s shopping centre for only £50 per week.
Within a few weeks, Lambeth Arts Council had provided a small start-up grant and so with Brixton Artists Collective formed, a future programme of exhibitions was planned out. Helped by the Charity Commission and grants from the GLC (and later Lambeth Council) longterm financial viability was achieved.
Of course, these few short sentences precis the hours of work put in by so many of the Collective’s members. Activity which was always accompanied by endless meetingsand discussions about everything from the colour of the Gallery walls to the aesthetic qualities of Christina Berry’s cat sculptures. If sometimes mutual antagonisms surfaced, more often friendships were made, perhaps most usefully among the groups of artists who came together either during a single show or, more frequently, through group shows like those organised by Womens Work and the Lesbian and Gay Artists Group.
One problem that failed to be resolved by debate however was the rising damp sensed on that first day. Despite the plans and dreams of our architect, Herb Opitz, the only proposals by British Rail to alleviate this and the leaking roof involved raising the rent to £800 per week.
So, after years of gradual structural deterioration culminated in a full-scale flooding, it was decided to close the Brixton Art Gallery doors for the last time in March 1988. Ironically, this duty was performed by Teri Bullen who had done so much to open up the Gallery to a wider public. A sad but not fatal blow to the Collective, as witnessed by this current show and the other initiatives now planned from the new office in the Brixton Enterprise Centre.
It’s not possible to summarise all the hectic events that occurred at the Gallery any more than it is to categorise the vast body of work shown there – the paintings, sculptures, prints, textiles, ceramics, crafts, photographs, films, videos and performance art. However, I offer the following four occasions for the record.
The great satisfaction felt on leaving the Gallery late one November night in 1985 along with Colyn de Wick, Gennaro Telaro and Jan Zalud, having completed hanging the 180 works from 80 artists in that year’s members Show. The moving experience of hearing Pitika Ntuli read his poetry to a hushed crowd of maybe 200 people crammed into the Gallery for one of the evening events during the Monti Wa Marumo exhibition. The delight in persuading Keith Piper to paint directly onto a Gallery wall when he found he was unable to deliver a particular canvas for Rasheed Araeen’s Third World Within exhibition. The enormous relief at the end of Carole Enahoro’s Last Requests exhibition of video and tape/slide work when the mass of hugely expensive borrowed and rented equipment was all safely returned.
Alongside these personal recollections are also memories of specific shows recalled when seeing again, in other galleries, the work of artists who had shown at Brixton: Roxane Permar’s developing Nuclear Dawn installation at the Air Gallery and Bedford Hill; John Martin’s masks, now at the Horniman Museum; the 20 or so photographers who reappeared in the Photographers Gallery D-Max show; Chisenhale’s Essential Black Art; and the Whitechapel’s From Two Worlds.
There are many, many others like these who exhibited at Brixton as part of a successfully growing career but just as important are all the artists whose only opportunity to present work to the public came through Brixton Art Gallery.
It was the only gallery where I ever managed to display my own wooden constructions. For that, and for so many other reasons, I will always remember the Brixton Art Gallery in Atlantic Road with affection.
Andrew Hurman (Brixton Artists Collective member 1983-86)