Desi Pubs – Art with culture: supporting and managing the non pre-determined outcome

Blog by Skinder Hundal – CEO of New Art Exchange and Executive Producer of the Desi Pub signs project

Desi Pubs is a multi-platform art project that has joined together seven Black Country pubs and their landlords with artists to produce a body of work that includes photography, stained glass, oil painting and mosaics along with the hand-painted pub signs. The commission was exhibited at Southbank Centre’s Alchemy Festival before being installed in the pubs permanently during Summer ’16.

Desi Pubs are a phenomenon representing a cultural memory and moment sharing ‘desi’ culture through, food, sports and pint of ale! These are spaces where all cultures meet, greet and exchange banter, connecting communities. The South Asian, in particular Punjabi, community have revived failing pubs transforming them into thriving energetic spaces for families and diverse communities.

New Art Exchange (NAE) collaborated with Smethwick-born visual artist, Hardeep Pandhal, to create the characters, stimulated by poetic references and mottos of Sooree Pillay, and worked with Andrew Grundon, a specialist in painting pub signs to finalise the signs. The process has engaged with the pub landlords.

Making art in the community for and with the community has its risks. There are expectations and differences in experience and understanding that are likely to emerge. Some argue for freedom of expression others sensitivity, so how far can the boundaries be stretched so that a ‘third space’ (Homi Bhabha) of ideas emerges that takes the artist and community forward.

In Desi pubs the artist team scoped the pubs, almost like a visiting residency, spending time in the local area, the pub itself, observing the punters and meeting the land lords to understand the cultural dynamics and from this developing ideas for the pub signs. The writer Sooree Pillay captured the emotional sentiment, Hardeep Pandhal the visual nuances and myself as Executive Producer ensuring the energy and relationships between commissioners, landlords and the artists was in tip top shape!

From the outset it was clear to set the parameters i.e. that this was a collaboration and that ownership of the process and outcome was to be a shared idea so anything could happen, i.e. where ideas could be proposed, be rejected and accepting a risk that we may need to start again. We were working in a community ‘alien’ from visual arts production and the arts and cultural sector as we observe and experience it as artists. Time was against us and we were on a super short deadline i.e. to complete 4 signs in three months ready to be hung as an exhibition at Southbank Centre in May 2016. The signs would also need to wash their face in the neighbourhoods post-exhibition when they return to the pubs and become both public art and actual signs, advertising objects, supporting a commercial business.

En route to create the signs and given the timescale and challenges faced i.e. the artists working together with each other for the first time and also engaging a community distant from the nuances of art processes, there was a massive risk that the project could fall flat on its face and produce a very compromised result. In the end it didn’t, in fact the project was delivered on time and was a huge success, engaging over 20,000 people over the festival period. The signs were much talked about as key highlights.

Key to success was managing expectations, being open and flexible, working hard and at unexpected hours and turning concepts and ideas around quickly, listening and responding to feedback and being prepared to start again. For example, for the Sports Man pub we tried to create a kabaddi (Indian/Punjabi wrestling) image that played on Punjabi Sikh communities wrestling with their English masters but showing the Punjabis dominating the match, playing on toppling colonial power. The design was rejected by the pub landlord as being too provocative, especially considering his mixed clientele, and so we chose a cricket match, honouring Bishan Bedi a cricketer who played in England in the 60s and 70s when a large wave of South Asian communities settled in Britain as migrant workers especially in the Black Country in towns like West Bromwich.

Also our idea to give the pubs a ‘motto’ belt with a key word, such as ‘courage’ for the Sports Man, defining the core essence of the pub and its landlord was in the end rejected. However we came up with an even better idea to do the motto belts in Punjabi script defining the pub name and then swapping the concept on the other side of the double faced sign, so flipping dominance by using language to create an equilibrium of some sort. There were many moments like this with all the signs, yet the artists remained open and the landlords polite yet firm about what they would not have and what they were expecting – all done over a pint and mixed grill!

Eventually the signs will be returned to the pubs where they will hung as public artworks but also active signs. The four pubs featuring in The Alchemy Festival are The Red Lion, Prince of Wales, Red Cow and The Sportsman. For more details read the abstracts below:

(New Art Exchange was commissioned by Creative Black Country (Arts Council England’s Creative People & Places) to produce eight Desi Pub Signs of which four will be shown at the Alchemy Festival, Southbank Centre, London from 20 May – 30 May)

Skinder Hundal – CEO of New Art Exchange and Executive Producer of the Desi Pub signs project
Sooree Pillay – writer on Desi Pubs

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