Judith Amanthis reports on how an innovative artist is pioneering methods of engaging working class communities whilst combating the far-right.
Everyone on the UK left knows why some members of the white ex-industrial working class have voted BNP. None that I know of knocks on doors in Doncaster or Dagenham, says “What can we do to help?” and talks to people. That’s what the BNP does.
Is it useful to engage in inside-left (excuse the pun) debate about whether the BNP is a fascist party? Is an elected Hitler likely in multi-racial 21st century UK? When the government’s far right immigration policy is an attempt to stem the haemorrhage of whiteness and Englishness from the UK working class anyway?
Whichever anti-BNP slogan the left chooses, one young woman is acting creatively. Artist Rachel Horne and her friends are trying to drag her South Yorkshire ex-mining community, and especially her generation, away from the BNP, but also from the British army and the drugs barons. An increasingly coercive and privatised social security system doesn’t help.
Horne, a strike baby, was born in a pit village in 1984. It’s where last month, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Great Strike, she organised an All Day Mining Party called Bring Out The Banners. 3000 people came, the brass band played, so did psychedelic folk bands, and Anne Scargill spoke about miners’ wives leaving their kitchens for police cells and speaking tours. Artists ran banner-making workshops. Photos, videos, miners’ memorabilia, and NUM banners became art and local history exhibition in one.
Horne, like Bob Marley, believes that to make something of the present you need to know where you come from. She first saw NUM banners drooping against the wall of Denaby Main and Cadeby Miners Welfare (the pit her father and generations back had worked down) when she was a teenager. Her immediate reaction was as an artist: their beauty and narrative power astounded her.
Then the banners’ meaning: that unity, watching each other’s backs and helping each other out, won battles for better wages and safer working conditions. Going on strike – losing pay – required collective loyalty. Helping your mate out down the pit lost you pay before nationalisation in 1946 brought in the basic wage. (But the bonus was a continuing incentive to work dangerously.) On all these marches, pickets and police battles, NUM banners were what people could see, what rallied them. None of the miners or their wives was armed. For a tightly-knit community, non-violence is a possible fighting tactic.
Horne’s videos, installations, collages, photos and drawings are about her community’s history. She takes it, distant and not so distant, to her community. She wants to create a new culture, new rituals, to replace (or substantiate) the ones Thatcher destroyed.
In 2006 she organised, in her home village Conisbrough, a day event and light installation called Out Of Darkness, Light to commemorate the 410 lives – men, boys and women – lost to Cadeby Main before its closure in 1986. She’s campaigning to get erased and grassed-over ex-colliery sites marked on UK reference maps. She’s had London art shows in which a lump of coal on a plinth takes centre stage, and got flak for it. She’s contributed to a street art exhibition. In 2007 she invited striking postal workers to a screening of her video Life And Land.
Can art be instrumental? Can it change the world for the better? Is Rachel doing art or is she just organising and talking to people? Who’ll pay her wages? Aren’t there problems with public art? Isn’t art really about making objects? Can a culture be fought for, or changed, or even healed, without a concomitant change in people’s standard of living? What’s she offering her community the BNP isn’t?
Horne is nothing if not controversial. But – she’s no fool – she believes artists like her can learn from her community’s collective creativity. She‘s trying to strengthen her enclave of the UK working class. That’s what other communities in the UK working class are doing: the Tamil diaspora, the Somali diaspora, west African women tube cleaners resisting victimisation for union organising, the list goes on. The stronger all these groups are the weaker the BNP is.
© Judith Amanthis 2009
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