Archives, artists and academics: Bethnal Green’s hidden history on display

Called home by waves of migrants from around the world, the diverse borough of Tower Hamlets has meant so much to so many over the centuries, particularly Jewish and Bengali communities in the 20th century.

Now, fragile cassette recordings of some of these Jewish and Bengali immigrants dating back to 1962 have been newly digitised and creatively revisited by sound artists, making for a haunting exploration of the East End.

The first audio art exhibition in Bethnal Green, Everything Is Different, Nothing Has Changed, is open for one final week at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.

When We Were Young installation by Emily Peasgood. Pic: Aysha Imtiaz

Earlier this month, these historic fragments of the social, political, and sonic East End, played host to a discussion between artists and academics. 

At the discussion called Resounding the East: An interplay of archive, artists, and academicsthe sound artists Alastair Levy, Emily Peasgood, and Syma Tariq interpreted the voice recordings differently, but all responded to the 1936 Battle of Cable Street  and tragic 1978 murder of Bangladeshi textile worker Altab Ali in their work. 

Peasgood’s piece, When We Were Young, was set visually against insurmountable loads of laundry and used playground songs to evoke a sense of ephemerality.

She told Eastlondonlines: “I focused on the naivete of children talking about their youth as if they’re pretending to be pirates.” But the reality of young, unaccompanied refugees stowed away in ships from Sylhet, Bangladesh, for instance, was harrowing, she said.

When We Were Young installation by Emily Peasgood. Pic: Aysha Imtiaz

Tariq’s piece, Delay Lines, included a moment of silence for Ali and the audio of a youth worker, Caroline Adams.

Discussing Delay Lines, Tariq said: “My interest is in disrupting colonial or archival time. I was really drawn to the idea of listening with rather than listening to. It’s a way of transparency. For people to understand they’re not speaking in a vacuum.” 

Levy’s piece, My Home in Morgan Street, reflected his grandparent’s history, complete with stinking fish, six-a-penny bagels, and visceral laments. 

Commenting on his work, he said: “One thing I was very conscious of was to draw parallels, to say something about the universality of life. I also recorded new audio using cassette recorders to mimic the audio of the archive material.”

My Name in Morgan Street installation by Alistair Levy. Pic: Aysha Imtiaz

Exhibition curator Professor Nadia Valman, an urban literature specialist at Queen Mary University of London, described the exhibition: “There’s something especially intimate about oral history as an exchange, the artists play around with these sounds, bringing together voices that time has kept apart.”

The installations were part of the Being Human Festival, the UK’s national festival of the humanities, which concluded on November 18 and are on display until November 23.

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