Connor Coulston’s installation ‘Me, My Nan and Oldham’ (2019) lures you out of the BALTIC lift and into the stereotypical living room of every Nan in the country. You are greeted by a hotchpotch of cobbled-together items, adorned with garish colours and scrawling text. They’re reminiscent of children’s crafts, made at play school and lining the walls and mantelpiece of every proud grandmother. Coulston’s submission to the Art 50 Weekender is a relic of British culture; but emblazoned with profanity and nationalistic propaganda, it is inflected with the working-class sentiments of ‘The Most Deprived Town in the UK’1.
Art 50 Weekender is a collective art festival born in the wake of the Brexit vote and the triggering of Article 50. It imagines what Britain will ‘look like, feel like and be like to live in’ when the country leaves the EU. The free exhibition was held over the weekend of the 23 and 24 February at London’s Barbican, the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and Sage Gateshead. Funded by Sky Arts, the fifty commissioned pieces will also be showcased on television this spring.
Notable artworks were Sarah Maple’s painting ‘Empire’ (2019) and Jasleen Kaur’s video ‘Daughter of a Perpetual Foreigner’ (2019). Both artists, of Iranian and Indian descent respectively, herald their protagonists as proud progeny of immigrants whom are also resolutely British. The artworks highlight the increasing hypocrisy of contemporary Britain, a nation eager to isolate itself from a world that – through colonialism and imperialism – provided it with its economic and cultural wealth. Kaur’s video takes the form of a YouTube beauty tutorial in which she uses ‘ancestral soil…rich in minerals and historical injuries’ to ‘remove toxins’ and the ‘confusion of being born in this country.’ The duplicity of a nation keen to reject the diversity upon which it is founded is confronted with adherence to British passive aggression, making it humorous and a little too relatable.
Other video work included Kuba Ryniewicz’ celebration of North East communities and Gulliver Moore’s ‘Small Town Politics’ (2019) – a painfully accurate portrayal of Britain’s seeming inability to look beyond provincial qualms.
Sunday afternoon of the festival saw a live performance of ‘Declaration of Independence’ (2019), a moving delivery of poetry and spoken word by London artist and educator Barby Asante and a cohort of women of colour. The performance began with an upbeat track and the jovial bobbing of performers to the beat. A subsequent amalgamation of artist and audience saw some viewers scrambling for their phones to Shazam the song (Energy by Sampa the Great, for anyone interested.) This convivial, musical connection drifted into discrete monologues ‘mirroring conference and assembly halls.’ Emotive speeches echoed around the room, eliciting joint speculative thinking on injustices towards minorities. One speech was little more than a breathing exercise; the room inhaling and exhaling in unison to remind us that we are all the same, cohabiting a planet corrupted by imperialism and colonialism. The performers were arranged in a circle, a West African tradition in which the communing circle becomes a safe space: a hub of strength and collective action.
Martha Barnett’s ‘And the Band Keeps Marching On’ (2019), at Sage Gateshead, tackled divisions within the United Kingdom itself. A comic spoken-word play, it illustrated the arduous task of ‘integration’ through a provocative portrayal of Northern Irish Loyalists who seem to only experience greater degrees of isolation. Through its dark wit, Barnett’s play underlined Britain’s fixation on categorisation and belonging. It encapsulated the prominent sentiment of the Art 50 Weekender: a story of hypocrisy, isolation and xenophobia wrapped up and repressed in nationalistic pride and damning satire.
1 Office for National Statistics: Towns and Cities Analysis 2016, available here. Data used by Connor Coulston in his installation ‘Me, My Nan and Oldham’ (2019).
Art 50 Weekender took place at SAGE Gateshead, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and the Barbican on February 23 and 24. It is part of a national project called Art 50, a scheme commissioned by Sky Arts, working with Barbican, BALTIC, Sage Gateshead and Storyvault.
Rosie Minney is a Fine Art student based in Newcastle upon Tyne.