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Canary Wharf: How Clays is set to blast into Canary Wharf with its target shooting game

Virtual clay pigeon shooting venue is preparing to open its doors at Credit Suisse’s One Cabot Square

An artist’s impression of how Clays Canary Wharf will look

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“We know the game is the thing that captures you and why you want to come, but once you’re there we want people to feel that they don’t want to leave,” said Jon Calabrese, operations director at Clays.

The virtual shooting venue is set to open its second branch in Canary Wharf in December, following the success of its debut in Moorgate. 

The new bar will be located overlooking West India North Dock on the ground of One Cabot Square – a building it shares with Credit Suisse – and is set for an official launch in January.

It will offer 90-minute digital clay target shooting for groups of up to 22 people in semi-private or completely private pegs.

With five games to choose from, it’s the latest in a succession of hospitality businesses in Canary Wharf to put competitive socialising at the heart of their operation.

First Electric Shuffle opened with a 21st century take on shuffleboard and then the vast Fairgame joined it this year, with its nine funfair-themed games. 

It’s a trend that’s here to stay as people look for venues that offer other attractions besides food and drink.

“The foundation of what we’re doing is the target shooting game and the quality of that experience is really important to us,” said Jon.

“We wanted to make it as authentic as possible and it’s incredible.

“Clay target shooting is great and I would encourage anyone to go and try it.

Clays operations director Jon Calabrese

“What we wanted to do was to create something immersive in the heart of London that would reflect that experience.

“Players use real guns that have been decommissioned with all of our technology that tracks them and delivers accuracy to within less than a millimetre.

“The clays within the game are subject to wind, aerodynamics and gravity and players stand in front of a three by four-metre screen.

“It’s honestly as though you’re standing in the English countryside and we control the sound and images so we can adapt to the weather outside.

“In autumn, for example, you’ll see leaves falling. We’ll keep working on the experience to make it even better.”

Clays, which was founded by CEO Tom Snellock in 2019, is expanding its operation following the warm reception customers have given its Moorgate branch.

Jon said coming to Canary Wharf was an obvious decision for the business.

“I grew up in north-east London and I’ve been coming to the estate for about 20 years,” he said.

“Even then on a sunny day it was absolutely alive.

“I think there’s this perception with Canary Wharf that’s it’s very much a business district, and at the weekend it’s dead, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“There are incredible residential hubs locally, shopping areas, amazing hospitality operators here and the Elizabeth Line has just come in. 

“I think it’s one of the fastest moving parts of London and with the density of people here it’s a no-brainer. It’s almost better to ask: ‘Why wouldn’t you want to be here?’.”

While the game is central to Clays’ appeal, there’s more to the venue than blasting away at virtual targets.

As the son of celebrated bartender Salvatore Calabrese, Jon has a pretty robust background in hospitality but initially spent time pursuing a different path.

Having embarked on a career in the fitness industry as a personal trainer, he joined the Met after a former girlfriend’s father – who happened to be on the murder squad – turned Jon’s head with stories of his work.

But, having worked as a police  officer in Newham for three years, the world of restaurants, bars and hotels proved irresistible and quite a contrast to his time wearing a uniform.

One of the pegs at Clays’ Moorgate branch

“When I came to hospitality in 2009, it was anarchy – chaos,” he said.

“People would work hard and be rewarded with management roles – then they’d have to work out how to do them.

“That meant often you’d either get people with authoritarian approaches or micro managers because they’d have imposter syndrome, which was weird.

“At Clays we have a career tree approach that means we will give people the skills and knowledge they need to be a departmental expert and to hone your craft.

“We won’t hinder you if you want to move between departments and try different things either.

“Ultimately we want to grow a business with culture, consistency and expertise so we can deliver on customers’ expectations at a very high level of quality.

“We want people to come to Clays for the game, but then to stay for the food and drink they’ve enjoyed alongside that experience.

“On the drinks side we use techniques such as clarification to produce crystal clear liquids we can pour like a coke but that have an amazing taste and mouth feel.

“That means we can maintain our rapid speed of service without sacrificing quality.

“These are the kinds of things you only see in small artisan bars.

“Our cocktails are signatures and what is important for us is the quality of ingredients and that our drinks reflect the British countryside using produce grown and created in this country wherever possible”

Players use real decommissioned shotguns to play

Wharfers can expect tipples such as Clay Burst, a sweet and sour pink gin creation, Jack’s Orchard, combining the taste of toffee apples with a whisky kick, and the Precision Punch, a banana spiced rum cocktail.

Food-wise, Clays will serve a menu created by culinary director Roger Olsson formerly of The Dorchester, The Ritz and Pied A Terre.

Dishes include Sweetcorn Ribs with paprika salt and a lemon and chilli dip, Cobble Lane Charcuterie and “KFC” tempura cauliflower as well as Loaded Breads topped with Middle Eastern, Indian and Italian flavours.

Jon said where possible Clays would use produce for the UK with a focus on sustainability, quality and provenance.

“We know the farms where our vegetables are grown and our meat is produced and the boats that catch our fish,” he said.

“You’ll find old favourites like scotch eggs and the calamari is melt-in your mouth.

“Everything is made in-house – it’s about elevating the calibre of the experience.

“Next year we’ll be installing an outdoor terrace so guests will walk in through green foliage, an outdoor bar and past heated tables.

“Then the venue itself is on several levels.

“There will be a tree house where a DJ will play, a reception desk with living moss under a glass top, a bar with a 3D scene that plays on the English countryside and the pegs themselves.

“The main bar is at the far end of the venue and looks over to West India Quay. There are also three pegs that can be closed off privately with bi-fold doors for private parties when needed.”

Clays is taking bookings from December 13 online.

The Canary Wharf branch has eight pegs with off-peak bookings for small groups starting at £30 for an hour’s play.

Peak rates for groups of six to 22 cost £70 for 90 minutes of play.

Jon and the team have developed the drinks menu at Clays

Read more: How British Land is set to build a new town centre at Canada Water

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Canary Wharf: How Kerb’s West India Quay operation has gone social

Street food business sets up not-for-profit to help traders start and grown their operations

Wandercrust founder Gavin Dunn is running Kerb Social Enterprise

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

Buy a meal from a street food trader at Kerb On The Quay and you will be doing much more than filling your stomach, from now on.

A year ago, Kerb made a radical change. 

After nine years of running markets across London that championed food startups – including the popular West India Quay spot – the business decided it needed to do more.

So it set up a not-for-profit social enterprise arm and hired Gavin Dunn, founder of pizza company Wandercrust and graduate of its own Inkerbator programme, to run it.

“I’ve always been really passionate about the ethos of Kerb – of breathing life and vitality into otherwise quiet areas of London and supporting a really diverse ecosystem of great foods from around the world,” said the 49-year-old, who is managing director of the company Kerb Social Enterprise.

“When I saw the job on LinkedIn, I felt pretty well placed to apply.”

Kerb already knew Gavin had experience with street food and his own consultancy in business development and HR, but its managers were impressed to find out he also had an extensive background with social enterprises and charities.

Gavin said it meant his experience perfectly matched the extremely niche role.

“There’s not that many food-based social enterprises so, not to blow my own trumpet, but I knew as soon as I saw the role it was quite nailed-on for me,” he said.

The first step in creating the new company ecosystem was “engaging” and, over the last 12 months, Gavin has worked to find more charity partners across four areas – youth unemployment, ex-offenders, refugee support and homelessness.

The aim is to discover hidden talent among the most disadvantaged communities in London to join its programmes and help diversify the street food scene.

“That early stage of the ecosystem is really important to me,” said Gavin.

“I went through the Inkerbator programme but was absolutely fortunate enough to have been able to afford my own pizza truck. 

 “I had a certain level of privilege to be able to set up Wandercrust while running my consultancy. 

“I’m well aware that early stage presents such a barrier to individuals in being able to pursue their dream of running their own food businesses.

“We’re reaching out to these charities to see how we can remove those barriers, work with them and offer support to get them onto our Inkerbator programme and trading at our markets.

Meatstop founder Benjamin Page began barbecuing aged 11. He now serves burgers, made from the finest ingredients and graduated from Kerb’s Inkerbator in October

“That’s where we are really plugged in to parts of London that we otherwise would have overlooked in the past.”

The new era, which dawned as Kerb began celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2022, relies heavily on its West India Quay market.

It restarted in March and is now where all Inkerbators must cut their teeth every Wednesday from 11.30am to 2.30pm.

Full Kerb members trade at the site every Thursday from 11.30am to 2.30pm.

So far this year it has produced 23 graduates, including The Yeast Brothers, who have now opened their own restaurant in Deptford.

The last cohort graduated in October, so the Wednesday market is paused for now, but will return in 2023 with a fresh set of traders for Wharfers to try.

“We take a lot of time and care to make sure the businesses that come through the programme have the best experience possible and we can rely on West India Quay for that,” said Gavin.

“Canary Wharf is the home of London’s markets, and street food markets are the original business incubators, where people shared ideas and practices.

“It’s really nice to have brought it back to Canary Wharf this year and long may it last. 

“We choose to do it there because of the crowd. The customers love it and recognise its value and you can feel it at an Inkerbator market.”

The Woolwich resident still remembers the buzz of trading there for the first time in 2016 with Wandercrust, which now trades in Greenwich.

“There’s nothing like it really,” said Gavin. “It’s excitement but you are anxious and you can still feel that at Inkerbator markets now.

“It means I know exactly how new businesses owners coming on to the programme feel.”

He also knows first hand the world of opportunities the programme can open up.

“One of the main benefits I found at Inkerbator was just this development of a network of like-minded creative, food-loving small businesses. It enables that collective spirit,” he said.

“It feels incredible for me to now be responsible for it and help rebuild it after the pandemic.”

Sadish Gurung, left, and Subash Gurung, both worked in IT before launching Nepalese food business Filili which serves up Momo bite-size dumplings, below. They graduated in October

Kerb, which also runs markets across London and a successful event catering arm with food service group Compass, shut down most of its activities over 2020 and 2021.

During that time it received 750 applications for Inkerbator.

Its team research and chat to each one, but also scout and approach businesses to invite, to ensure they are finding the best.

Those offered a place go through the coaching stage of the ecosystem, followed by six weeks of trading at West India Quay.

Once the incubating stage is complete and traders have graduated into full members, the accelerating stage kicks in.

Many go on to trade at the Thursday market at West India Quay and Kerb also offers regular networking events to its 100-plus members, some of whom have been with the business since its inception.

“It can be a lonely place, being a food business owner,” said Gavin. “So being part of a collective really helps to get everyone’s creative juices flowing.”

Becoming a social enterprise was a big change but Kerb was already working with charities such as Food Behind Bars to find potential members.

“We’ve worked with a guy called Marcus who had the idea of setting up a Caribbean pie and mash business,” said Gavin.

“I first met him in Brixton prison and now he’s working with us to gain work experience to help get him work in hospitality, but also to hopefully one day get onto our Inkerbator programme to set up his own street food business.”

It also works with The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN) and one of its founders is on Kerb’s advisory board. 

One of the most popular traders at the Quay is Oshpaz, which was set up by Uzbekistan refugee Muzaffar Sadykov after he was referred by TERN and completed Kerb’s Inkerbator programme in February 2019.

Transforming into a social enterprise means the company now has more money to invest in its work with these charities as there are no shareholders or dividends.

“If you buy a bowl of plov from Muzaffa, not only will the the money go straight to him, but any pitch fee he pays Kerb is reinvested back into supporting early stage food businesses to help them grow through the Inkerbator,” said Gavin.

Kerb partnered with both charities and new partner homeless charity The Connection at St Martin In The Fields, to launch its first big move for the new social enterprise in the summer.

It partnered with McCain for initiative Streets Ahead offering free workshops to 100 less advantaged people. 

“We’re already seeing individuals that The Connection has worked with referred to us and we’re supporting them either into work or talking about how they would go about setting up their own food businesses,” said Gavin.

Jan Manrique from RiceON.LDN serves Korean bulgogi and graduated from the Inkerbator in March

“We’re always looking for new partners and more support and we would like to do a lot more because there’s so much food talent out there and individuals that would love the opportunity to do it.

“But there are still a lot of barriers in the way, which we’re working really hard to remove.”

Gavin said next year was going to be a big one for Kerb.

“There’s loads of things in the pipeline that we’re excited about,” he said.

“Not least, working with all of the charities I’ve mentioned and removing those barriers to entry into food entrepreneurship for individuals who are just leaving prison or have refugee status. 

“It really does feel as though we’re in a unique position – we’ve got so much to offer.”

He added: “I’m passionate about supporting small, independent businesses and have yet to come across a business that is better at doing that than Kerb.

“It’s a privilege to be able to be the person doing this for Kerb. 

“It’s had such success over the first 10 years and I’m determined to make the next 10 years equally as successful and ground breaking.”

He hopes West India Quay will continue to embrace its new traders as they diversify and hopefully extend the number of days they trade there next year.

“We’ve had such amazing support from the customer base,” said Gavin. 

“It hasn’t been as busy this year because with hybrid working not everyone’s in the office all the time.

“But what we have seen is real support from people who want to make sure that we remain there.

“People tell us they plan their days in the office around market day and some people come over and order 30 different meals to take back and make it into an office event.

 “Kerb’s remit has always been to breathe life into spaces, to bring some colour, diversity and flavour to an area that might otherwise be less vibrant. 

“I really think we’ve done that at West India Quay but also in the wider Canary Wharf area. You see so many more small food businesses there now and I like to think Kerb played a small part.”

Read more: How In2Sports offers inclusive space for all to play

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Canary Wharf: Skuna Boats offer 50% off voyages around West India Docks

West India Quay-based firm has BBQ boats and hot tub boats plus a prototype hybrid

Tommo of Skuna Boats with hybrid River in the background
Tommo of Skuna Boats with hybrid River in the background – image Matt Grayson

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For the past three years – lockdowns excepted – West India Docks has been home to knots of folk in swimsuits gently slipping through the water in curious bright red craft.

Some sport captains’ hats and sip beverages, most wave to passers-by as they inevitably become the subject of social media updates or enthusiastic messages to friends.  

They are customers of Skuna Boats, a company based at West India Quay and founded by CEO Stuart ‘Tommo’ Thomson. 

“I originally saw the hot tub boats in Holland – they’re made by a guy in Rotterdam and I spotted them when I was on holiday and thought it looked a lot of fun,” said Tommo.

Despite enforced closures due to the pandemic, his business has had its busiest summer since the first of pillar box red vessels silently sailed away from its moorings and, with a new boat in the pipeline and plans to expand operations to more sites in the UK, the future looks bright.  

Hot tub boats can take up to seven people

“I had a go in one and thought it was brilliant and that it was definitely something that should be in the UK. 

“We  started in the Regent’s Canal near Old Street for a year and then moved to Canary Wharf.

“The docks here are a lot more expansive – the boats can travel further and it’s a more interesting journey.

“The Regent’s Canal has locks so you could only go about 500m. Here the boats can explore a lot more of the dock system so it’s a much better place to go out on one.”

The hot tub boats normally cost from £225 and have a maximum capacity of seven people equating to less than £33 on weekdays.

They are filled with fresh, pre-heated water for each party which is kept at around 38ºC by an on-board stove that is stoked with enough eco briquettes to last for the duration of the 90-minute experience.

Refreshments, including limited alcohol can be purchased direct from Skuna.

“Whatever the weather – sun, rain, snow – the water will stay at 38ºC,” said Tommo.

“We’re much busier in summer but the best time of year to take a trip on one is in the winter when it’s freezing cold outside. 

“We haven’t had snow in Canary Wharf since we opened, but we’re hoping for some because it will be a great experience to sail the boats in those conditions.

“The trip lasts an hour and a half – we have a recommended route, which takes up the duration of the hire time.

“There are a few limits on where the boats can go but otherwise customers are free to explore the dock system. They travel at a couple of miles an hour for a relaxing, serene experience.”

BBQ Boats have a grill in the middle to cook whatever you like on
BBQ Boats have a grill in the middle to cook whatever you like on

Skuna also operates BBQ Boats for up to nine people who can cook on a grill at the centre of the doughnut-shaped craft. 

Restricted to North Dock by the pedestrian bridge from Crossrail Place to West India Quay, sailors are nevertheless free to bob around the struts of the floating bridge while making their food. Hire starts at £150 and drinks must be purchased from Skuna.

“You can enjoy a trip while cooking your own food with Canary Wharf in the background,” said Tommo. “It’s amazing to see all the wonderful things people prepare. We do packs of food too that people can purchase or they can order from Pizza Pilgrims.”

 Expansion beckons, with a pop-up already in place at Lakeside shopping centre. But of greater excitement to Wharfers is the company’s new prototype, currently tied up at West India Quay as it undergoes testing. 

“We want to expand the hot tub and BBQ Boats to other locations in the UK,” said Tommo. “The ones we currently use are made in Holland so we’ve developed a prototype that’s partly made of recycled plastic bottle tops, designed and built over here.

“It’s a multifunctional vessel that will be able to transform from a hot tub boat to a BBQ boat to give us greater flexibilty. It’s not ready for customers yet, but it certainly should be at the start of 2022.”

In October and November 2021, Skuna Boats is currently offering 50% off Hot Tub Boats booked Monday-Wednesday. All BBQ Boat bookings are half price until November 30.

Use code BOATOUT for the former and AUTUMN50 for the latter.

BBQ Boats are restricted to West India North Dock
BBQ Boats are restricted to West India North Dock

A PERSONAL JOURNEY

I have to admit to a certain scepticism about taking a ride on a hot tub boat. I thought the novelty would quickly wear off, that a quick 20-minute spin would be enough to get the gist and then it would be back onto dry land.

Then something remarkable happened. I’m not sure whether it was the deep warmth of the water, the process of learning to sail the jolly little craft or the dreamlike progress we made through the water, but time seemed to stand still.

The boat was extremely easy to manoeuvre, its tiny engine providing just enough thrust to make it feel like we were getting somewhere without ever careering out of control, even at full throttle.

The juxtaposition of one’s body, essentially in a hot bath, floating on deep cool water with Canary Wharf’s towers rearing up all around is peculiar.

It’s a rare expedition of near total decadence in a world of purpose and direction – a chance to escape for 90 minutes into an experience that’s pure fun and pleasure.

Everyone waves. People shout that they wish it was them. The tiny electric motor is silent, the stove doesn’t even crackle.

You’re a swan gliding effortlessly over the darkness of the dock, between the shadows of the buildings into the sunshine.

Then all too soon it’s over and, mentally, you start planning your next trip before you’re even changed. Stirring stuff. JM

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West India Quay: London: Port City exhibition set to tell the story of the docks

The Museum Of London’s multi-sensory display is created using the Port Of London Authority archive

Co-curator Claire Dobbin helped put the exhibition together
Co-curator Claire Dobbin helped put the exhibition together

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Vibrant colour, sounds, sights and smells will fill the major exhibition space at Musuem Of London Docklands when it opens its doors to visitors again on October 22.

Inside, the freshly joined pine of packing crates, resplendent in blues, reds and printed with photos, house the cargo of London: Port City and are set to tease and provoke the eyes of viewers as they explore the displays. 

Held in partnership with the Port Of London Authority (PLA), the exhibition is both a look into the past and a snapshot of the present, as it explores the impact that the arrival and departure of cargo has had on the capital since 1800.

Taking the era when the building that houses the museum itself would first have been used as a warehouse as its starting point, the display draws heavily on the PLA’s vast archive and includes 222 objects that make up an interactive timeline, revealing stories of smuggling and infrastructure. 

“The museum has been managing the archive for quite some time and there are some small aspects of it already on display there, but this is the first time it has been mined to this extent,” said co-curator Claire Dobbin.

“The port and its impact on London is massive – not just historically, but today. 

“Handling over 50million tonnes of cargo a year, from our morning coffee to the clothes we wear and materials for the buildings we live and work in, it plays a vital role in our daily lives and national economy.

“It’s moved down river – and for many of us out of sight – but the port is still very much part of London. Our riverside cityscapes are also peppered with echoes of its history in its architecture and street names.

“Our cultural landscape too has been shaped by centuries of global exchange – by people, products and ideas passing through the port. 

“This influenced and enriched language, diversity and communities that underpin the city we know today.”

A railway carriage leaves for Africa from Royal Albert Dock in 1947 – image PLA Collection/Museum Of London Docklands

Inside the exhibition, visitors will see archive photography and video, hear oral history recordings – first-hand accounts of life on the docks – and even be able to smell the odours of some of the cargoes received by the port.

“We didn’t want it to be a chronological display – that would have been too dry,” said Claire. “Instead we’ve aimed for something more interactive, so that people can connect with things.

“Everybody who comes will connect in some way, because they are here in this building. Many will come who are from the area and know some of the stories very well. We hope everyone will find some relevance in the displays.

“We knew we wanted to focus on the impact of the port on different communities in London and also the lived experience of the people working on the docks.

“For that we’ve drawn a lot on the oral history collections, which are fantastic. There are voices as well – two sections where you hear lived experiences and little anecdotes. The oral histories were done in the 1980s, so some people talk about the beginning of the 20th century, and it’s amazing to hear that first-hand. 

“This exhibition has been a real team effort – staff at the museum have spent huge amounts of time going through the archives both physical and digital to select exhibits.”

The PLA itself was created in 1909 to take over the running of the Port Of London from myriad rival private companies that built enclosed dock systems throughout the 19th century as an alternative to the comparatively poor security of the Pool Of London’s wharves.

“Because we’re covering the period from 1800, the team has been trawling through huge amounts of material such as minute books from the companies that pre-date the PLA,” said Claire.

“The wonderful thing about archives and documentation is that what they captured is what needed to be minuted at the time – what was important to that company in that meeting. It’s a different perspective.

“The real beauty of an archive exhibition is the bringing together of a range of different material.

“For example, we have a diving helmet in the exhibition, which we wanted to show, but equally wanted to bring to life, and we were able to find a film of people using the equipment.

“Honestly I could only watch it once as the thought of being under the Thames even with modern gear gives me nightmares.

“Then you have documents – we have one of the ledgers from 100 years ago showing the offloading – exactly what was coming in.

“Samples would be taken to document the quality so we’ve got some sample pots of spices and other commodities. 

“What comes through in the oral histories is that working on the docks was a sensory experience, quite a harsh environment.

“People would say you could tell where you were in Docklands by the smell of the warehouses.

“We wanted to recreate a sense of that as well as what things looked like, so there are various smells people can experience.”

A group of young Asian men on board a ship in 1908 – image PLA Collection/Museum Of London Docklands

The exhibition is also about the titanic enterprise that is the modern operation of the PLA.

“Right from the beginning we wanted to bring the docks to life and that means the current practice of the port, which is very much hidden from central London,” said Claire.

“I didn’t know much about it at all, when we started this project – I probably knew more about the historical docks than I did about the current operation and the impact it has on our lives. So we wanted the exhibition to be three-dimensional, to show the scale and dynamism of the PLA today.

“The design is a big part of the exhibition, with lots of interaction, but we wanted to get lots of hard facts in as well. I hope visitors will be interested to learn more about where they live and work and that they see the area through new eyes on leaving.”

Laid out thematically, highlights include the opportunity to discover the stories behind 80 words, phrases and place names that have their origins in the Port Of London with a focus on the its relationship to the slave and sugar trades, including a document commemorating the unveiling of the statue of slave owner and merchant Robert Milligan, which was removed from outside the museum in 2020 in response to the Black Lives Matter protests. 

The exhibition will also feature Trade Winds: London a new work by artist Susan Stockwell using archive material to explore trade, economics, migration and empire.

London: Port City runs until May 8, 2022.

Entry is completely free although tickets should be booked online. Donations to the museum are welcomed.

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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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