Peckham’s art scene

by LAUREN HOUSSIN formerly on laurenetcaetera.blogspot.com  22 December 2009

From New York’s Meatpacking district to Berlin’s Mitte or Paris’ Montmartre, dirty corners of cities all face the same destiny: they are pioneered by young artists, and later colonized by the trendy bourgeoisie. The rents soar, and the starving bohemia has yet to migrate again.  Take the case of London. After Ladbroke Grove in the 1970s and Camden in the 1980s, the East End was conquered in the late 90s. By the early noughties, Brick Lane, Shoreditch, even Dalston were out of price. Artists soon decided to move south of the river, to Peckham. Known to most people for its gang warfare and knife crime rates rather than its culture, Peckham is home to a burgeoning art scene. Because of its empty industrial spaces and proximity to art schools, the bloody district is now an area of choice for young up and coming artists.

“An advantage of working as an artist in Peckham is that there is an audience for art in the area,” said 26-year-old Bobby Dowler, whose paintings are currently showcased at the Hannah Barry Gallery, one of the great pioneers of the area’s scene and one of the most dynamic new art galleries in Britain. “There’s an extremely good dialogue between people,” the young artist added, “and a seriousness about what they’re doing, a kind of belief that it’s important.”

Located in a former cricket bat factory at the end of an industrial road populated by factories, the Hannah Barry Gallery was invited at this year’s Venice Biennale to stage the first Peckham Pavilion. Ms. Barry founded her eponymous gallery in 2008 with Sven Mündner, and works with 32 artists, all aged between 21 and 35. Whether they are showing paintings, installations or photographies, their aim is to always show the work in-depth, in order to best represent the progress of the artist.

“Peckham is the land of freedom and opportunity,” said Ms. Barry. A hallmark of the area’s art scene is its large-scale and high-reaching projects: the spaces available can accommodate shows and works that could not take place in typical West End or East End galleries.

“Everbody has their own possibilities,” she explained, “and for us the space that we have here allowed us to do the shows that we wanted to do. It would have been a different price in the West End, and perhaps not the kind of price that a young gallery can afford. Being in Peckham has enabled us to do things on a scale that we wouldn’t have been able to do over there.”

Although East London is an established part of the city’s gallery circuit and houses the highest population of artists in Europe, it is no longer what it used to be. Its charm and character seem to be lost since property developers have taken advantage of its popularity. As rents have rocketed, many younger artists have in fact headed south of the river in areas like Peckham, where rents are more affordable.

Situated inbetween two of London’s leading art colleges, Goldsmiths School of Arts and Camberwell College, plenty of young, artistic and imaginative people are challenging the negative stereotype that is still all too-often applied to the area. “A lot of students live in the area and continue living in the area after they graduate. I have done so and I graduated in 1998,” said Emily Druiff, Director of the arts initiative Peckham Space.

Through annual commissions, workshops and public events, Peckham Space supports art practice that forges sustainable links between the arts and the local community in south east London, and aims to provide professional development opportunities for artists. The organisation is also plans to open an art venue in a raw space in Spring 2010, showcasing artworks made in conjunction with and in response to the locals of Peckham.

Peckham is home to 25,000 people from all over the world, and has the highest proportion of people born elsewhere compared to the rest of Southwark. One of the best metaphors of Peckham is the Bussey building, that from the outside looks like a run-down factory in a dodgy back alley. But penetrating the almost historic monument -it was built in the early 20th century- and looking closer, it is occupied by an aggregate of over 60 artists, faith groups, exhibition spaces  and small businesses, all existing and working happily alongside each other.

Turner Prize winner Antony Gormley and his fellow Royal Academician Tom Phillips, who both have their studios in Peckham, decided a few years ago with a clutch of others to do an artistic makeover of the run-down neighbourhood’s landscape. With this street art initiative, residents now enjoy some of the most original street murals, barcode-patterned pavements in the city and twisted or heart-shaped lampposts by the fashion designer Zandra Rhodes.

Just a step out of Peckham Rye station is a wooden sculpture of a phoenix with splatters of paint on it. According to legend, the Phoenix is reduced to ashes at the end of its life, from which a new, young phoenix is reborn to live again. Using the metaphor of destruction and creation, the sculpture aims to communicate a message of rebirth among the community and the role played by the young art scene in this rejuvenation.

Most people will hear the word ”Peckham” and they will just picture graffiti, dirty pavements and urinated phone boxes. But aside from the drama that the South London area evokes, a few pioneers have managed to raise up the profile and status of the place for everyone, bringing new audiences to the area, creating people of different ages and backgrounds mixing in the same place and causing the area to now easily betray people’s expectations.




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