I often work with galleries and museums, which can sound somewhat middle class. The idea that art is the preserve of the middle class is partly right, 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 government performance indicator which correlates a lack of 'social mobility', with not visiting galleries. The logic here is that if you are going up the social ladder, you must want to visit your local gallery or listen to classical music.
However, policymakers sometimes forget that many people don't see improving their lives in the same way, and sometimes opt to not visit their local gallery. They might earn a decent salary, or go to university, yet this doesn't this mean people want to engage with the art on offer in galleries. My parents never visited galleries until recently, though we continuously engaged with a range of artist works. There is a broad range of art and culture on offer in the vast number of unsubsidised community venues, clubs, pubs, and dance halls, for example, yet this is not officially considered as engaging with art or culture. Clearly, the government thinks not. There is clearly a class assumption underlying this social policy.
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, but rarely will you see its local working-class community portraited. A rare example worth seeing is Andrew Tift's work, Three Steelworkers.
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 some South Asian Black Country pubs, its owners, staff and the punters. Initially, I thought that the project was primarily about the dislocation of the Asian landlords running Black Country pubs, yet you quickly realise 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 socialised 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 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 keeps one shut off from the healthful dust of the earth if it robs one of the rights of the entrance to the great fair of common human life."
These words are still relevant today.
The 'Desi pub' project, like much of the work of Creative Black Country is about creating inclusive spaces, even imaginary homelands, a place where Indian culture meets Blighty bringing out the best in both. In the current climate creating a common culture in this way is essential.