I am struck by how apt the New Art Exchange exhibitions have been during our project. Shamila has always taken the opportunity to take the group to each exhibition and she and Ruth act as guides as the young people wander around the galleries.
Cut & Mix features seven Black British Artists (curated by Ian Sergeant) and explores and challenges notions of race, gender, sexualities, place and identities in relation to British Black masculinities. Some of the images are quite provocative and Shamila decides to explain some of the context before taking the group down to the exhibition. She draws on the name of our project as part of her explanation and asks them to think about the word Belonging and what it means to them. Again, she puts large pieces of paper on the wall and encourages them to come and write their thoughts. Two Eritrean boys are deep in conversation about what to add to this word wall about belonging. They are sharing their phones to translate and eventually they seem to find something they are happy with. They go and write on the wall copying from one of the phone screens. I ask them what they have written (it is in Tigrinyan) They say they have written the Tigrinyan word for ‘together’.
Another boy who is from Sudan writes ‘qui appartiennent’ (which translates as ‘who belong’). I ask him where he learnt French and he explains it was during his time there on his journey to England. So many switch between a range of languages when they are speaking to different people within the group. Although English is the common language, for some it is their fourth or fifth language. I am awed by the multilingual competencies of the individuals within the room.
As Shamila moves on to explain that the exhibition is about masculinities she asks them to consider what they would add to the sentence ‘I am a ______ man’. This is put on the wall and the boys consider how to fill in the blanks, consulting their phones and each other. At first, they are slow to come up and write on the sheets of paper. But once they start, they are interested in what others have written.
By the end of the activity the following phrases are on the wall:
I am a strong man
I am a respectful man
I am a kind man
I am a good man
I am an alone man
I am a funny man
We go down to the exhibition. The boys feel comfortable about getting very close to the exhibits. They touch the artwork and take pictures using their phones. I notice how they ask each other to take pictures of them next to the different pieces.
One boy seems to take his time working out where to stand in an exhibit which is sequence of four images of a male wearing hats and wigs. Before his friend takes the photograph, the boy adjusts his hat deliberately and alters his stance. Is he deliberately adding himself to the exhibit? Does he see himself represented there? It seems to me that he has a clear sense of stylised form he creates photographs which become temporarily part of Cut & Mix representing a young newly arrived male in the city.