top of page

Navigating Brixton’s Muralscape on a Sunny November Afternoon

By Katie Gillespie


Navigating Brixton’s Muralscape on a Sunny November Afternoon


It’s golden hour outside Stockwell Underground Station. I’ve gotten off the tube a stop early on my way home so I can walk from Stockwell to Brixton. Known for the various community murals that popped up in this area from 1980 onwards, I’m looking for the art that documents the history of my local area. I enjoy the splash of colour a mural brings to an otherwise dull, architecturally uniform street. Beyond its aesthetic value, I find it fascinating to learn the social context that brought about each mural’s creation because murals are inherently social and often political cultural artefacts. Perhaps my fascination stems from having grown up surrounded by overtly political imagery in my hometown, Belfast. Albeit unintentionally, I now once again live in a community famous for its murals, so I’m taking you with me as I explore them.


First up is the Stockwell War Memorial Mural, directly outside the station. As part of a community art project, Brian Barnes painted the mural in stages between 1999 and 2001 on a WW2 deep level air raid shelter. A rolling field of poppies remembers those lost in the war, the names of whom are commemorated on the nearby memorial clock. Alongside depictions of soldiers surfacing over the trenches, local figures including Roger Moore and Vincent van Gogh–who spent a year in Stockwell–populate the mural.


I’m struck by the poor condition of the mural and some sections have suffered significantly more degradation than others. The tribute to Violette Szabo is one of the worst affected areas. An extraordinary young woman, Szabo worked as a British-French Special Operations Executive in Nazi-occupied France where she was captured, tortured, and eventually executed by the German army at Ravensbrück concentration camp at age 23. Significant sections of her mural are now damaged making Szabo’s memory a victim to time and habitually grim British weather.


In an article on the ‘Death of a Mural’, Jonathan McCormick and Neil Jarman write ‘Mural paintings are cultural artefacts and as such they have a lifespan and a biography.’(1) These public artworks can be lovingly restored, deliberately removed, or simply left to disappear as time passes. You might think that, given the Stockwell mural was conceived as a community art project, the community should decide its fate. Such was not the case when in 2005, in the wake of the police shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Station, Barnes added a portrait of Menezes to the mural. The portrait was commissioned by a local charity, Stockwell Partnership, and supported by members of the local community who wished to commemorate his death.


Yet, members of the British Legion protested the inclusion of Menezes in the memorial because he did not die in a war and his portrait was later removed by the Lambeth Council who claim the move was made in order to reduce ‘environmental nuisance’.(2) Nowadays, no trace of Menezes portrait remains on the mural. Removing Menezes but keeping the image of Van Gogh–who neither fought nor died in a war–makes it damningly obvious which voices local authorities will listen to within their community and which they choose to ignore.




Brian Barnes, Stockwell War Memorial Mural, 1999-2001.

Images courtesy of Katie Gillespie


When a community wishes to breathe life back into a dying mural, sourcing the money to do so presents a significant challenge. A 2013 project to restore the mural and the war memorial clock it stands next to cost £19,336. Often community groups like the London Mural Preservation Society (LMPS) are left navigating a series of closed doors as each governing body shifts responsibility for the repairs to another authority. The difficulty of fundraising such large sums results in longer periods between restorations. Yet as more time elapses, the damage to the mural worsens which will result in a more expensive restoration. I’m feeling a bit disheartened when I reach the next mural on my route at Slade Gardens Adventure Playground and witness its state of disrepair.


Once a WW2 bombsite, Slade Gardens was transformed into a green space for the local community. The mural followed in 1983, painted by Gordon Wilkinson, Lambeth’s muralist in residence, along with Sarah Faulkner and with help from residents. These residents are depicted in the mural with their 1980s fashion sense and retro haircuts immortalised in paint. Close to where her parents lived, this mural is personal to Ruth Millar, founder of the LMPS. She explains in a BBC radio interview ‘I see people I grew up with, all the kids back in the 1980s are in Adventure Playground. It’s lovely. It’s like a photograph.’(3) She continues, ‘That’s why people want to keep murals, they’re part of their story.’(4)


The residents of Slade Gardens in the 1980s represent a unique cohort constantly developing into a new community. Thus, communities are continually in a state of flux and the viewers of a mural will inevitably change over time. Any people depicted will pass on or, before that, they may choose to leave the area. For some, this choice is being made for them. The average house price in Lambeth has risen nearly 50 per cent in the last ten years. These rising prices have forced the traditional community, many Windrush-descendants, out of the neighbourhoods where murals depict their loved ones.


McCormick and Jarman explain that murals ‘remain and are sustained as long as they have a purpose and a meaning to the people who live with them and value them’. (5) To long-standing residents, artists in the 1980s were painting their murals against the backdrop of the riots at the start of the decade. The next mural on my walk passes behind what is now the O2 Academy, where Stephen Pusey painted his 1981 mural, Children at Play. The mural responds directly to the riots in its depiction of a large, multi-racial group of local children playing together in harmony. Brixton’s newest residents–myself included–who live with these murals but not the social pressures out of which they were created must play an integral role in sustaining the murals if they are to survive for future generations.



Left: Gordon Wilkinson, Slade Gardens Adventure Park Mural, 1983.

Right: Stephen Pusey, Children at Play, 1981.

Images courtesy of Katie Gillespie


The value we see in community murals may be artistic, it may be social, or it may be historical. Either way, these murals are certainly of didactic value. In an interview, Pusey stated his inspiration for Children at Play: ‘Kids don’t think so much about [race], it’s only when they get older that they begin to think about these differences. And there essentially are no differences, we are all the same people.’(6) The Brixton Uprising was a means of protesting racial discrimination against the Black community by the police. The movement was a response to the abuse of the ’suspected person law’ by the Metropolitan Police, who used it to stop, search, harass, and assault Black people.(7) This past March, the independent review into the Metropolitan Police Service found that still, in 2023, ‘London’s communities of colour are both over-policed and under-protected.’(8) The significance of Children at Play has only amplified with time. It reminds us that we’re still living in a society where a Black child can be stopped and searched over thirty times by the police force that purports to protect him.


It is just after 4pm by the time I reach Brixton Station, but the sun is fast disappearing. I squeeze in a quick visit to the Market murals in the station and to Nuclear Dawn, Barnes’ 1981 criticism of the Thatcherite government and its nuclear armament policies, further reinforcing the nature of political commentary through the murals that I encountered on my walk. The final mural on my list is one that muralist Bunny (@icreatenotdestroy on Instagram) painted this year to mark the 75th anniversary of the Windrush. Commissioned by Brixton Village, Bunny painted the mural on the wall of the market’s outdoor seating area. In celebration of the generation’s legacy, Windrush 75 showcases twenty-one members of the Windrush community–from Lord Kitchener to Naomi Campbell–who have shaped British culture over the past three quarters of a century.



Bunny, Windrush 75, 2023.

Images courtesy of Katie Gillespie


The very process of gentrification that has brought me to Brixton is creating an inhospitable environment for those who made the area the cultural centre that it is today. The people and their murals that have characterised the streets for years on end are at risk. Windrush 75 is a reflection of the community of long standing residents who successfully campaign to protect local vendors like Nour Cash and Carry from eviction by Hondo Enterprises, the Texas-based property development company that owns the Brixton Village market. Brilliantly vibrant despite the fading light outside, this mural refuses to be overlooked.


I’m lost in thought as I walk the last ten minutes from Brixton Village to my flat, so much so that a cyclist nearly takes me out as I cross the road without looking. In a way, the murals of Brixton are so unlike those I grew up with in Belfast. For a start, there are significantly fewer guns and balaclava-donning paramilitaries depicted on this side of the Irish sea. Yet, similarities emerge when I look beyond the imagery to the reasons for which both muralscapes exist.


Like those of Belfast, the murals of Brixton are political. They respond directly to the social issues as experienced by their community. However, commissioned and created by the community for the community–rather than by militants–their message is one of hope for the future, not one of violence. Nowadays the most offensive of Northern Ireland’s murals are being ‘re-imaged’, or rather, removed in consultation with the communities that surround them. The new murals cropping up in their place remind me of Windrush 75 in their celebration of local heroes. These are murals that we can all be proud of and that we should aspire to preserve. As such, it is our collective responsibility to protect them for future generations.




-----


(1) Jonathan McCormick and Neil Jarman. ‘Death of a Mural’ in The Journal of Material Culture. Volume 10, Issue 1. March 2005.

(5) Jonathan McCormick and Neil Jarman. ‘Death of a Mural’ in The Journal of Material Culture. Volume 10, Issue 1. March 2005.

Comments


Recent Posts
bottom of page