I often work with galleries and museums, which can sound rather middle class. The idea that art is the preserve of the middle class is partly true, and one aspect of national social policy, and a reason for the existence of the Arts Council, is to tackle this by trying to encourage 'socially excluded' people into galleries. There is even a performance indicator which correlates lack of 'social mobility', with not visiting galleries. Clearly, if you are going up the social ladder, you must want to visit your local gallery, or listen to classical music.
However, policy makers sometimes forget that many people are happy not climbing the social ladder and don't want to visit the local gallery. They might earn a decent salary, or go to university, yet this doesn't this mean people want to engaging with the art on offer in galleries, but would rather engage with the broad range of art and culture on offer in the vast number of unsubsidised community venues, clubs, pubs, and dance halls, for example. Is his not considered as engaging with art or culture?
Clearly the government thinks not. There is a class assumption underlying this social policy, since the national social exclusion don't factor this. One reason some people don't visit galleries is that they don't see their lives reflected in the galleries. If you visit the galleries in the Black Country you will the local landscape painters by artists such as Turner, Richard Chattock, Edwin Butler Bayliss, Harry Norman Eccleston and Arthur Lockwood, creating some beautiful landscapes, and plenty of portraits of rich people, but rarely will you see its local working class community (though a rare example worth seeing is Andrew Tift's work, Three Steelworkers see below)
One local group, Creative Black Country, recognises this and makes art for local people, and leaves it with local people, and Desi Pubs project is one example of this approach.
For the project, I documented a number of South Asian Black Country pubs, its owners, staff and the punters. Originally, I thought that the project was primarily about the dislocation of the Asian landlords running Black Country pubs, yet you quickly realize that almost everyone who comes to the pub is slightly out of place. The word 'desi' is commonly used to refer to people, cultures, and products from South Asia, and although the project is about this community, it is also about something else. The original Sanskrit word, desha, referred to people from a specific place or land, and in these pubs everyone seems to share a common bond about being from the Black Country, which incidentally is itself an imaginary place with no clear boundaries, with most people talking about coming to terms with the changing local landscape.
Almost all of the local punters talk about the decline of the local manufacturing industries. For example, one area Rowley Regis grew from its iron ore, stone and coal and this made it a central location for heavy industry, many of the local men would have worked in the same factories, often on the same machines, as their fathers and grandfathers. It's a generation of men who feel slightly out of place in the modern post-fordist economy, but not so in the pub. People of all backgrounds socialized together in the factories and the pubs. In 1965, when the first Black barman, Linton Dixon, started pouring pints in the New Talbot Inn, Smethwick, it was such big news it made the local paper, nowadays the growth of the Asians owning and running local pubs passes without anyone even noticing.
One reason is that the landlords have taken on establishments which were largely run down, and often plagued by violence. One comment everyone makes about the Landlord, Amrick and the Fourways Inn in Rowley Regis, is how much better it is now. Despite what we hear in the press about multiculturalism, one of the benefits of these mixed multicultural havens is that they are safe and welcoming, and of course they have cheap beer and food.
On this project, I was inspired by the formal portraits in the local galleries, and I worked with people who regularly popped into the pubs to create formal portraits. At the Ivy Bush, Smethwick, these were then printed onto pieces of aluminium, homage to the local aluminium casting foundries in Smethwick, where many of the Indians were employed. In the Four Ways, Rowley Regis, I created a lenticular, remembering the pubs original landlord, the present landlord and his roots in India, and his son and the future. The lenticular recalls that the pubs each have their own story, and the landlords, and the customers are part of the story. In 1964, at the height of the colour bars, Jagmohan Joshi, President of the Indian Workers Association (IWA) wrote to all the residents around Marshall Street, in Smethwick quoting the words of the great Indian poet, Tagore. The words,
''The child who is decked with prince's robes and who has jewelled chains round his neck loses all pleasure in his play;
his dress hampers him at every step. In fear that it may be frayed, or stained with dust he keeps himself from the world, and is afraid even to move.
Mother, it is no gain, thy bondage of finery, if it keep one shut off from the healthful dust of the earth, if it rob one of the right of entrance to the great fair of common human life."
These words are still relevant today. What is the role of the mo dern galleries if their fineries don't speak to local communities? The 'Desi pub' and Creative Black Country are about creating inclusive spaces, even imaginary homelands, a place where Indian culture meets Blighty bringing out the best in both.