Can you tell us about your early development as an artist?
I left art school about twenty years ago and started working with two homeless charities just around the corner from Whitechapel Gallery – Providence Row and Crisis. For about ten years, I worked with refugees and people who’d come out of prison and ended up on the streets. That experience really formed the artist I’ve become – asking questions about history and where the past influences contemporary positions.
How did that early experience shape the way you work with communities?
When you work with communities, you have understand your social responsibility. The autonomous voice of the artist – that’s something that has long expired. In developing my practice, I’ve asked people to contemplate their own narrative, their family story, their community story, and how these fit with larger narratives of national identity. I’ve made collages with people to understand what symbols they would use to describe themselves, what fabricates a visual language, and how that filters into a wider community or collective identity. How does this community want to describe itself when it’s really given the chance?
How did you initially approach the Globe Town site in Bethnal Green?
I’ve lived around the area for twenty years and have always known it was a place with so much history. Ideas of the welfare state, labour laws and human rights all began in East London, partly because of the extreme poverty that existed here and partly because the docks were bringing in goods and people from all corners of the British Empire. So many groups of people have come through this area – from the Huguenots to the Jews to the Bengalis. I really wanted to understand how all of this happened here.
During your archival research for this project, what stories about East London particularly caught your attention?
The Suffragettes are so celebrated, but it’s the West London branch of the Suffragettes, the more upper-class Suffragettes, that are celebrated. Whereas the East London Federation of Suffragettes allowed women of colour to be involved. They took over a pub on Old Ford Road and renamed it The Mothers Arms – it became a place where mothers could come and feed their babies at a time when no such thing ever existed. And so much about protest movements that we understand today comes from the matchgirls’ strike in Bow in 1888. In fact, when we did the public consultations for the Globe Town project, that was something that was brought up a lot by residents. It’s interesting how these stories still stick in people’s minds. But it’s not just a history project – it’s about how the past is still defining us, how these traditions haven’t necessarily gone away.
How were local communities involved in the process of the project?
I’d spent lots of time in local archives and was able to draw out a really big selection of material. We placed images on tables throughout the local library and then held sessions open to the public. People would come in to look at the material for themselves and it provoked conversations. When people start to talk and their memories are jogged and they start to feel that little bit of inspiration – that part is really magic. When that happens, you’re in the zone as an artist. It’s always daunting doing public consultation. You’re never quite sure who will turn up, you’re never sure if you can break the ice. But it was really lovely to get feedback from the public in relation to the designs we’d suggested. And it’s always lovely when people surprise you with their opinions.
Can you tell us about some of the archival images that feature in the final collage?
In the centre of the artwork, there’s a horizontal green section which is actually a photograph of the ladies who were running The Mothers Arms. They’re holding all these children. Food poverty at the time was so extreme that mothers were often not able to breastfeed their children, which perhaps mirrors the situation today. The guy in the two bottom corners of the work – that’s Daniel Mendoza, a Jewish guy born in Whitechapel who develops the art of boxing. It was very important to strongly position the Jewish community within this work because they’ve played a large part in the founding of this area. I didn’t want to bring in a stereotypical image of Jews, as they’re often understood, fighting fascism in the East End, or as refugees, or being on the receiving end. Instead, here’s an individual who is extremely notorious for being a bare-knuckle boxer in the East End and, at the same time, is understood to be an intellectual. He wrote a book, The Art of Boxing, and a kind of gentlemanly boxing evolved from it. Today, boxing clubs at places at York Hall in Bethnal Green are still a big part of what has steered young people toward more positive versions of being.
What about the distinctive colouring and layering of this work?
The original idea was to present a combination of a Victorian industrial mural and a Bollywood-style poster. It was important to bring colour and vibrancy to the site, and to bring contrast and layering to the images. Optically, the blues and greens sit backwards and then the oranges and reds slowly move forward to position more contemporary moments. In the background, for instance, is one of Brunel’s giant steamships built in the London Docks, almost like a precursor to the Titanic. And, in the very top corners of the work, there’s the British emblem for the Bahamas – with the motto Piratis Expulsis [Pirates Expelled] – to give that hint of Empire, trade and movement. Obviously, extraction is part of that which is why the Crown tips in subtly at the top. In the borders of the work, there are metal workers and makers, people working with whale bones, all these industries that we forget were the founding wealth of this city.
How do you hope people might respond to the work?
I’m hoping they all feel a little piece of representation in there, a little piece of reflection, that this work can be owned collectively and doesn’t lend itself to just one part of the community. I hope the work resonates and its brightness brings a positivity to the site.
And what impact has this project had on your own practice?
I haven’t made a lot of work in a UK context for a while. But this project has really brought me back to East London – it’s reminded me why my studio is still here, why I personally still find sanctuary here, why all of us are still attracted to this part of the city.
Shiraz Bayjoo is a Mauritian artist living in London. His work considers ideas of nationhood and identities, often tracing histories of people and places through archival sources – including maps, images, and texts. He creates painting, photographs, installations as well as public artworks and collaborative projects.