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by Yassin Rida

"Named as the capital’s first Borough of Culture, this second biennial is a sustained attempt to maintain momentum and at the same time, counter the ghettoization of art within the usual galleries of Zone 1."

Growing up Brent, Ed Webb-Ingall. Photo: Thierry Bal

The power of presence is difficult to understate. Get past Sartre’s notion of the absurd and you’ll see how spatial dynamics permeate everyday life, from the Chelsea tractors that clog and choke up inner-city roads to the infrastructure of technology and mass communication. As for the negation of presence, that is too easy to overlook. The migrant worker labouring away at the margins to afford sub-standard accommodation, the history of this nation from the perspectives of those who built it and everyone who lives here.

In this regard, the Brent Biennial of 2022 can be held up as a timely and particularly pertinent example of dimensional art. Marking a decade on since the launch of Theresa May’s “Hostile Environment” policy, this year’s theme – In the House of my Love – excels at two primary objectives: grounding the hostile environment firmly within the tradition of British imperialism and homing in on the refuge provided by the homes that marginalised groups make for themselves, often out of situations. So, the exhibition brings together artwork like Kamile Ofoeme’s pictorial-semantic depiction of West African foods and its link to the Black diaspora, alongside an installation of Mahmoud Khaled’s Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man.

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Some notes on Brent. Situated in north-west London, this vibrant and diverse borough is something of a kaleidoscopic beacon in otherwise suburban Metroland. Named as the capital’s first Borough of Culture, this second biennial is a sustained attempt to maintain momentum and at the same time, counter the ghettoization of art within the usual galleries of Zone 1.

Studded across the borough, the Biennial sets up shop at a number of curious locations, some of which appear to masquerade as statements in their own right. Sure, there’s the obvious use of civic buildings like Willesden Green Library and Metroland Studios on the Kilburn High Street, but there’s also a Catholic church involved and the eye-catching Tin Tabernacle, before ending up at an abandoned cricket green and a local high school.

Um, why? Speaking to the Head of Programmes, Lauren Wright, the choice of locations were two-fold. Firstly, it wasn’t much of a choice at all, because as is so often the case with grassroots art initiatives, “finding the available space was a struggle and we took what we could get”. And so when life gives you lemons, turn it into art! Exchanging corporate-sponsored galleries for residential streets offers the exhibits a lease of life whereby the art “doesn’t necessitate fixed locations” and goes someway in answering the question posed by Abbas Zahedi: “how are we showing it?”

In Counter Harmony, Shenece Oretha. Photo: Thierry Bal

Looking at what was on show, there were certain artists whose work demanded a mention here, irrespective of word limit. Recall how this review was introduced and then consider the impact of Shenece Oretha’s In Counter Harmony – an immersive space at the Tabernacle whereby a vacant hall teems with life. Loudspeakers sit around (one even occupies a nearby chair) and looped conversations flow. Pressing discussion gives way to a choir rehearsal and the uncanny feeling sets in that you’ve walked in uninvited, are eavesdropping and that in the midst of collectively engaged voices, it is your individual presence that is being eroded. It’s a dialectic that parallels Oretha’s intention to highlight “the contrasting feelings between celebration and mourning, inviting us to adjust”.

Reading Room, Rasheed Araeen. Photo: Thierry Bal

Rasheed Araeen’s Reading Room also invites us, albeit in this case, it’s to pick up a book. Namely, the first 100 issues of Third Text – a cultural studies journal founded by Araeen in the 80s. Placed around a cubic seating structure and surface, the aesthetics alone speak to a modernist future that has passed us by. As for the texts interrogating “art, culture and postcolonialism”, we’re reminded of the political dimensions that are never far from what constitutes the art world – an audio recording of Araeen’s Preliminary Notes for a Black Manifesto serving to highlight these questions that “remain as relevant as ever”.

Disya Dancehall, Linett Kamala. Photo: Thierry Bal

Relevance and the decontextualization of art is a concern that becomes apparent went speaking to local artist Linett Kamala about 90's Dancehall. Her Disya Dancehall has probably had the most buzz around it with regards to the general public. Taking over a former chippy, Kamala wishes into existence the Jamaican takeaway her and her friends never had, having instead to trek down to Ladbroke Grove for the welcoming embrace of warm patties and even warmer hospitality. Visitors who might otherwise have expected to sample Caribbean street food are taken aback and then drawn into the bold visuals adorning the walls. The paintings of lively and maximalist women characters from dancehall parties are vivid artistic interpretations of photos shot by Kamala on her night-time outings and are instances of fashion history in their own right. Precursor to the development of jungle and grime music, Kamala is nonetheless insistent that the 90s motif is inseparable from the authentic milieu and “wider socio-historical nuances” that Dancehall emerged from, and paraphrases DJ Buju Banton to call out the lack of “meaningful existence if culture was absent”. It’s a stance reminiscent of scholars reviewing pirate radio in the same decade and how many of the stars of that era were left “destitute and unknown”, even as the music they pioneered took on new life in today’s mainstream.

"In the face of displacement, it’s essential – now more than ever – to nurture a sense of belonging on our own terms"

Fi Dem I - V, Zinzi Minott.

Critics seeking the mainstream amidst the Biennial may at times reel from an avant-garde that eludes – and bluntly speaking, this says more about them. Introducing Zinzi Minott’s Fi Dem I-V. Part of the dance performance Black on Black that will screen in the final weekend, this work is a punch to the gut in its depiction of institutionalised racism, something that becomes evident to anyone remotely familiar with what it means to be simultaneously from the Global Majority and present in a White space. It’s difficult to think of a more effective use of audio-visual distortion to depict the sheer insanity that the Black diaspora has been forced to endure, and for that Minott deserves an accolade.

Arwa Aburawa & Turab Shah, I Carry It With Me Everywhere (2022).

As the Biennial closes, what next for art between now and 2024? The Metroland Young Associates programme goes someway in nurturing the talent that will continue to bring art to where the people are – and their delivery of the closing weekend is a date to save. Hearing from teenagers talk about their aspirations, be it in performance art or indie music, seldom fails to leave you with some degree of hopeful optimism. Is that still tenable? Arwa Aburawa and Turab Shah of Other Cinemas might be able to answer. Their featured monochromic film considers the fears, hopes and thoughts of migrant communities in the UK as they undergo a loss of place. We’re then reminded of the subjectivity of ‘place’, that in the face of displacement, it’s essential – now more than ever – to nurture a sense of belonging on our own terms.

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