Three scenes stand side by side, occupying a vibrantly painted mural. On the far left, a menacing officer’s mouth opens wide to expose a prisoner behind bars, on the far right hooded youths stand, pressed against walls and try to reach through blue chains, while in the middle of it all a peaceful man tends delicate flowers as white doves fly towards a yellow rising sun.
These images – powerful and contradicting – together form I Am Here, a community art project that pays tribute to a painful past, reveals a troubled present and tenuously suggests the possibility of a hopeful future.
“This kind of art isn’t easy. It’s controversial, it challenges, it asks questions”, said John Johnston, coordinator of the project and director of the Centre for the Arts and Learning at Goldsmiths College.
The mural was created by six young teenagers from Deptford’s Addey & Stanhope School, under the guidance of Northern Irish artists Danny Devenny, Mark Ervine and Marty Lyons. The trio were made famous by their political murals on city walls during the Troubles.
Tayla, 15, one of the young artists who worked on the project, explained the concept behind the images. Tayla said: “It’s about how we, as young people in the black community, feel about the police. They look down on us and stop us, especially boys, judging us purely by the clothes we are wearing.”
She hopes that the mural would open up a dialogue between police and the black community. “I want the police to see this. I want them to work with us, and I want the mural to help us do that.”
The project, funded by the Centre for the Arts and Learning in partnership with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, was organised after Johnston delivered a lecture at Goldsmiths two years ago titled ‘Can Art Change the World?’
Johnston described the power of art to successfully break down barriers between “groups that are diametrically opposed” in places like the Middle East, South Africa and his home of Northern Ireland: “If it can happen in Israel/Palestine, it can happen here.”
When members of the community were asked what kind of a mural should represent South-East London, the response was overwhelmingly in favour of the New Cross fire.
Thirteen young black people died in a house fire that broke out during a birthday party at 439 New Cross Road on January 18, 1981. The police response to the tragic incident sparked a strong reaction by the black community, who felt marginalised as second-class citizens.
“Whatever happened in that fire we will never know”, said Johnston, “But we do know what happened after. “The police and the press blamed the black community for the fire, saying that ‘this was their behaviour.’
“Now,” he said, “we see their voice.”
The public is invited to view the mural at the centre over the next few months, before it is moved to the main hallways at Addey & Stanhope, “So everyone will have to walk past it, Jones said.”
Johnston added: “If this is what young people see the police as today then there’s a serious problem. I challenge the police to work with these kids and listen to what they have to say. If you can’t convince them, it isn’t going to change.”
“The Story Walls” is a documentary detailing the thirtieth anniversary of the New Cross fire that will air on BBC Northern Ireland December 18, 2012 and will also be viewable via the BBC online iplayer. Watch below for a preview of scenes from the film.