Shiraz Bayjoo’s new installation at the Whitechapel Gallery is a body of work that developed from the artist’s residency with teenagers from Bow Boy’s School in East London. It comes at an interesting social moment when both the Occupy Movement and the recent riots have been in the public’s and media’s attention. Bayjoo excavates the recent past of the 1970s and 1980s anti-racism protests in inner-city Tower Hamlets and Southall through street photography and video footage from YouTube. He uses the prism of historical protest to explore the confidence and staying power of contemporary Asian youth, who can now comfortably claim that the East End is indeed at its feet. It is home.
The careful curation of documentary photographs, video archival material and found furniture from East London streets brings a sense of reclaiming history, and the traces of social memory. By creating an installation with image and found objects Bayjoo is giving shape to a body constructed by social and political history, a performative presence of past social unrest.
Compare these past selected moving and photographic images with the contemporary image of protest and unrest of 2011 in the saturated media of the mobile phone. It is possible to see a different set of politics unravelling. The clear sense of purpose in the past against the far right National Front and racist housing policy is juxtaposed with the uncertainty of demands in both the Occupy protests and the recent riots. Contemporary social unrest is self-conscious of its own image and identity – performance to social media. Bayjoo’s appropriated images and reclaimed objects brings the past to the present, to ask a new set of questions which the young men photographed by Bayjoo poses as a window to the future – calm, comfortable and at ease with themselves and optimistic in outlook.
The splashes of colour on the disgarded furniture convey the Asian presence, claiming its space. This is not through the exclusive spectacle of occupying ‘public space’ but by the shared exchange of the market-place, bringing to mind the vibrant colours of Asian methai (sweets) sold in the many cafes in Brick Lane for the enjoyment of everyone. Tower Hamlets didn’t suffer so badly from the riots compared to other areas of London, probably because of this tight-knit community of which Bayjoo’s young men are part.
Bayjoo is careful not to romanticise the social unrest of the past. The raw transference of the photographs onto cheap discarded drawers and cupboards and worn cuts of furniture wood brings to mind the working class Asian homes which are strongly present in the East End. Nevertheless, the displacement of cheap furniture onto the streets is also a metaphor of class displacement through gentrification and the greater encroachment of hipster-dom and the financial district.
The images of protesters from the 1970s and 1980s are powerful: they communicate a disciplined anger. What is striking is that none of these protestors are performing their identity – no outward appearance of a dress code pertaining to Islam or identifying with international conflicts in the Middle East or Afghanistan. The protest is targeted, and the demands are clear: to defend the community from far-right racial violence and harassment. A battle won.
It’s a curious subject for Bayjoo to address as a young artist, since neither he nor his family directly lived this pas as an experience. But by curating this installation the artist is perhaps in search of a more tangible sense of moral and political purpose, through a political art that brings a complex dialogue about the nature of social engagement through art: celebration or education? Collective identification or what Edward Said defined as being ‘the exile’? Being critically and culturally distant from identities forged by nation, homeland or religion. Through this exhibition we can see that Bayjoo is up for the debate.