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Canary Wharf: Feeding Black opens at Museum of London Docklands

Exhibition at the London Sugar And Slavery Gallery examines the role played by food in black identity

Aleema Gray is community history curator at Museum Of London Docklands
Aleema Gray is community history curator at Museum Of London Docklands

Walk over the floating green bridge from Canary Wharf to West India Quay, turn left and, just behind a now vacant pedestal, you’ll find the Museum Of London Docklands.

Head up to its London, Sugar And Slavery gallery and, provided you visit before July 17 next year, you’ll find a bright orange corner dedicated to Feeding Black.

The display, which opened to the public this month, examines the role played by food in black entrepreneurship and identity in south-east London. 

Focusing on four businesses – Livity Plant Based Cuisine in Croydon, Zeret Kitchen in Camberwell plus Junior’s Caribbean Stall and African Cash And Carry, both in Woolwich – it explores how they act as much more than suppliers of goods and services to their customers, as spaces to talk and express politics, culture and heritage. 

Community history curator Aleema Gray said: “One of the things I’m really interested in is looking at alternative knowledge – what it means to represent in terms of curatorial displays, and that was the motivation behind this exhibition.

“It’s about alternative ways of knowing. For instance, we’ve recently had an upswell of looking at black British history. But, when you go into the community, there’s oral history, the things that are left outside academic textbooks. Curators are typically seen as people who conserve this kind of academic knowledge.

“What’s interesting about this project is looking at the ways alternative knowledge can be used to make certain interventions in the role of curator – it sounds wishy-washy, but it is essentially asking how we can include multiple different perspectives and narrative experiences in our displays? I put a call out, basically asking: ‘What are contemporary black experiences?’. Some people said, ‘my kitchen’ or ‘the barber shop’ and one person put forward an idea she had, which she referred to as the ‘black economy’.

“She’d been looking at black-owned food businesses as part of her research, focussed on African Cash And Carry – interviewing people that came in – and discovered these spaces were about more than just commercial gain. They were for politics, culture, sending money back home and buying food. There was even a little restaurant – a multi-dimensional space.

“I wanted to explore that a little bit further, so I took that and thought about what the next step was for this kind of research and put forward a proposal for Feeding Black – which takes the element of looking at not only community spaces, but also interrogating power, because a lot of the conversations when we did the initial oral histories were talking about what it means to be in London today, to survive and thrive, to start a business, the challenges, the setbacks, but also stories about being part of a diaspora.

Junior’s Caribbean Stall in Woolwich features in the exhibition

“Apart from one, all the people featured in the displays were born outside London – one in Ethiopia, one in Jamaica, one in the Congo, one in the Cameroons, so a lot of this is entangled with questions of migration and so on.

“That’s how the initial idea came about, but the area I work in, Curating London is very much a participatory project – we place a particular emphasis on being on the ground – visible outside the museum – and asking what a museum wall is.

“We had to re-jig things a bit because of the restrictions around the pandemic, but essentially the main exhibition deals with four black-owned food businesses, their oral histories and the objects that they put forward reflecting their place. It also looks at different themes of food including health, the different objects you find in kitchens as a place of work but also the nutritional value of ingredients and dishes and we’ve got a recipe wall as well.”

In her role, Aleema has a particular responsibility for the London Sugar And Slavery Gallery in which the exhibition sits.

She said: “Since the gallery opened it has been shelved a little bit, so my responsibility is to try to re-mobilise certain conversations, make some interventions to think about how we develop, and take that gallery a little bit further. 

Feeding Black sits in the wider gallery, because I wanted to do something in response to the ways in which Docklands has been developed as a direct result of the plantation economy.

“For me, food acted as a perfect segue to think about London, Sugar And Slavery, not only in terms of the content of the exhibition, but also the visual design.

“This exhibition is very much about the process as well as the content, as is the wider gallery.

Feeding Black was about using that space as a vehicle for community engagement. 

“It’s also not necessarily a chronological history – it draws on certain themes and it puts forward not necessarily answers, but asks questions about the legacy of this history and how we are all implicated in it. Feeding Black tries to speak to that.

“In the crates under the wall display, for example, you have certain questions, such as: ‘Where does our food come from?’

“It’s very subtle, but it helps people to think about the legacies of migration, enforced or otherwise.”

Aleema, who is currently finishing a PhD on the documentation of a community engaged in the Rastafarian movement in Britain, said it was weird to talk about herself as a curator. 

She said: “I didn’t go to museums as a young person because I didn’t see myself or my history reflected in these spaces but something I’m really passionate about is curating history from below – the silent histories, the hidden archives – I’m a historian. 

“There’s this idea of what history is in schools – the Romans and the Tudors, for example. I feel there’s a need to show that history is dynamic, it’s a verb, and that started my work to see how we can bridge this gap. This is what I’m doing as a curator and an academic – situating myself as the outsider within.

“The Museum Of London and museums in general are making a strong effort. There’s a lot more work to do but we’re definitely on the right path.”

The museum is free to visit and is currently open from 10am-5pm Wednesday to Sunday.

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Greenwich: How Greenwich + Docklands International Festival is filled with hope

Artistic director Bradley Hemmings talks healing, unity and highlights across the River Thames

GDIF artistic director Bradley Hemmings – image Matt Grayson

There’s something very reassuring about the return of the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival (GDIF). Now in its 26th year, it’s set to run from August 27 to September 11, promising its usual rich collection of performances and installations running the full spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Bradley Hemmings founded the festival in 1996 and has been at the helm as artistic director for more than a quarter of a century.

“This is a very wonderful and important year for us, because it follows on from what we did in 2020,” he said. “Last summer we were able to deliver the festival in the middle of the pandemic, safely and in a completely re-imagined way – bringing performances to people, rather than the traditional focus on encouraging everyone to come to town centres.

“We’ve taken some of that learning from last year and mixed in a bit of both – town-centre fun and conviviality, that sense of occasion, but also taking doorstep performances out to neighbourhoods.

“One of those that I’m very excited about is called Mystery Bird, which features a processional giant birdcage with images of birds projected on it and a beautiful soundscape all around, that will move through places in the dusk and early evening.

“At certain points it stops, birds are released, and, by the miracles of technology and sound, they fly everywhere – onto houses and into trees. It’s a wonderful experience of release and all the things we’re looking forward to.”

Balsam is set to take place in Woolwich as part of the festival

From his base at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, Bradley and his team have been working to come up with the finished programme, which has just been released and includes the fruits of a two-year partnership with the Diplomatic Representation Of Flanders to the UK.

Central to that arrangement will be a production of Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills at a site in Thamesmead that’s been closed to the public for more than 100 years, created by Flemish company De Roovers in response to its setting. It’s set to take place from September 7-11 and will cost £15 per person.

“It’s one of the projects we’d hoped to present in 2020, but the situation with international travel made that quite difficult,” said Bradley. 

“We’ve always been committed to it, because the play, which was originally written as a TV film, has a wonderful connection to the site we’re taking it to.

“When Thamesmead was created, this area was used for the spoil, which came when they were draining the land so it’s created this landscape of hills and woodlands where nobody is allowed to walk.

“Potter’s story features adults playing children and it takes place in wartime in the idyllic Forest Of Dean. But, like Lord Of The Flies, things aren’t quite so idyllic.

“We look through rose-tinted glasses, but the reality of it was actually rather more brutal – children and their games, which go seriously wrong, who are very much the victims of war, just as much as their parents are.

“The setting, where still in the 1960s and 1970s there were stories of kids who would explore this remarkable landscape on summer adventure schemes, is part of the psycho-geography of Thamesmead and we’re playing with that by bringing this production here.”

GREENWICH AND WOOLWICH DIARY DATES

Balsam
Building 41, 
Woolwich
Sept 7-11 (£15)
Potions and elixirs are created to heal and calm in this theatrical adventure

Family Tree
Charlton House And Gardens
Aug 27-30 (£15)
Discover this new play exploring exploitation and ethics in healthcare

Dance By Design
Greenwich 
Peninsula
Aug 28-29 (free)
Check out The Lost Opera, Finale and Dandyism at this free pop-up in North Greenwich

Another key part of the programme is the return of Greenwich Fair on August 29. This collection of circus, dance and theatre performances, complete with street games, owes its lineage to a regular historic festival that brought travelling shows and attractions to the town until 1852 and was much loved by Charles Dickens.

Flying high over that spectacle will be We Are Watching, in place at the Old Royal Naval College from August 27-30 – Swiss artist Dan Acher’s monumental 10-storey high flag depicting a giant eye made up of digital portraits from people in 190 countries across the globe.

Bradley said: “The idea of it is that all those people are expressing the fact that they are watching what is about to happen later this year at climate change conference COP26 in November.

“It’s a provocation, if you like, to all of us – to the festival audiences, to think seriously about what this all means and how they might be able to contribute to that, but also to the global leaders who are going to assemble in Glasgow.

“The other work we have featured from Dan is called Borealis and there has been a huge amount of interest in that already.

“It is an extraordinary recreation of the Northern Lights, which are certainly on my bucket list.”

Dandyism will be part of Dance By Design on Greenwich Peninsula

The installation promises to create the experience of seeing the Aurora Borealis at two locations in south-east London.

Like the vast majority of the festival, it is free to attend and will be in place from August 27-September 5 at the Old Royal Naval College and from September 9-11 in Woolwich.

Closing things out, on September 10 and 11, will be Healing Together – a programme of street arts, installations and performances focused on the environment and taking place at both Royal Victoria Gardens in Royal Docks and Woolwich town centre.

“The first year of the festival was 1996 when you could only go from the Isle Of Dogs to Greenwich via the foot tunnel – there wasn’t even the DLR,” said Bradley. “Not everyone was in love with the idea of a cross-river festival. The way this area of London has transformed is part of our story. 

“With Healing Together we’re supporting another cross-river relationship that isn’t new – North Woolwich, Woolwich and Silvertown used to be part of the Borough Of Woolwich but were separated in the 1960s, so we thought we’d bring them back together.

“There will be gardens of light and fire to explore, a cross-river street theatre programme and a finale moment you can experience on both sides of the river on September 11 that, by the miracle of light and fire will unite both Woolwiches.”

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