This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014). Part one of a two-part article.
“Great art picks up where nature ends.” - Marc Chagall.
When you first arrive in Newham, everything seems new and loud: the motorway, the blocks of flats, the office buildings, even the Olympic Park. Almost everywhere you turn there is a crane moving, workers talking loudly and more dust than you’d probably expect from a hustling London neighbourhood. Apartments and office buildings now pop up with such frequency that rarely an eyelid gets battered.
It wasn’t always this way though. Newham was originally a rural area dominated by farming. However, everything changed during the mid-19th century when the Royal Docks were built - the largest in the world at the time. Other industries followed suit shortly after, and the marshes began their transformation into factories, office buildings and housing spaces. Newham quickly saw a population boom.
Yet since the 1850s, it has become one of London’s most deprived boroughs, with extreme housing problems, critical unemployment issues and a transient population living on government benefits. Thanks to a broad ethnic community - it is the second most diverse borough in the UK - racial disparity has also been rife. The population, consisting of more than 300,000 residents in 2012, is predicted to almost double between 2006 and 2031.
This social and cultural instability is a problem that the art world has repeatedly sought to tackle. The creative spirit is not easily marginalised and the visual image has a way of powering through and fighting back in times of hardship and trouble. Indeed, Newham is bustling with imaginative individuals looking to regenerate the area in a positive and constructive way for the local community. Art has become a means of uniting and developing the borough.
It has not been without its challenges. In 2012, the Arts Council found Newham to have the lowest arts participation rates in the country. Perhaps naturally, with people on the verge of being kicked out of their houses and struggling for survival, many have chosen not to get involved in arts activities.
There has also been the issue of trying to encourage many of the artists living in the area to actually choose the borough when exhibiting their work, rather than showcasing in the more popular and thriving parts of the city. This problem was only further exacerbated in 2012 when the London Olympics descended.
Initially, it was thought the globally recognised project would be the much-needed boost to regenerate the neighbourhood. Infrastructure projects such as the extension of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) were started in 2011. The Games also put Newham on the map, encouraging interest and development, bringing a whole network of tourists to the area.
However, the Olympics hype meant landlords in the borough upped rents by 40 per cent. People were forced to move east or even out of London altogether.
Small enterprises were similarly left trudging to survive thanks to the restrictions imposed by the Games; in particular, those within the artists’ community. East London-born artist Stephen Shiell explains that when Carpenters Road had to close, many artists were displaced from their studios and forced to move wherever they found an alternative.
Robert Clarke, founder of Arch 1 Live Music on Cranberry Lane, had similar experiences: “The Olympics didn’t help small businesses. We weren’t allowed to function properly during the Games.” For residents and small business owners alike, the Olympics did not prove to be the great opportunity they had expected.
With a catalogue of challenges, as well as the general complications affecting both the area and the arts community within Newham, you would be forgiven for thinking that many would have decided to simply give up and move on to more prosperous and creative boroughs. With hardship and disinterest in equal doses, perhaps it is not the right place for art. Yet Megan Piper, who discovered the area two years ago while attending photographer David Bailey’s opening at Compressor House in the Royal Docks, saw something else - something worth hanging around for.
Piper was struck by how much untapped potential the area held in terms of public spaces and art projects. She also recognised how underused the landscaped footpaths and grassy banks following the waterways were. “I was blown away by the scale of investment and development in the area, and the vision for its future,” she explains.
Most residents don’t even know of the docks, the walk, and all the incredible public spaces along the river, such as House Mill - a Grade I listed 18th century tidal mill, open to the public, and now also used as a filming site for movies and photography backdrop for fashion magazines. People that choose to live in Newham tend to do so until they can afford a better place. They don’t choose to stick about, which is most likely why they know so little about these hidden beauty spots. Piper felt something needed to be done about this and she was inspired to make something of this space.
Archive: PETRIe INVENTORY 66
Words: Sorana Serban
Image Source: The Line