by MK Palomar
Peckham has been ripe for blooming for a number of years now, placed between Camberwell School of Art and Goldsmiths, with the South London Gallery and a healthy number of alternative art spaces (both pop-ups and long term enterprises), art students and graduates form a substantial part of the community. Although within Peckham’s diverse population there are significant and wide divides.
Peckham, Saxon for Village on the river Peck (the river was long ago submerged under Peckham Rye Park), was worth 30 shillings when King Henry I gave it to his son Robert Earl of Gloucester. When Robert married the heiress to Camberwell the two properties were united. Later King John hunted deer through the forests, Rupert Brooke walked from his Rainbow Street cottage to Dulwich, and William Blake saw a vision of angels in Peckham Rye Park. Every district has its histories, but such beginnings did not foretell the Peckham of today, it is now one of the most deprived areas in the UK and frequently described as a notorious crime hot spot. This unfortunate reputation attracts on the one hand charitable organisations ticking the Peckham box for their outreach projects, and on the other, the local street gang PYGs (Peckham Young Gunners) struggling for their territory with knives and dogs. Despite these problematic issues Peckham’s trump card, its cultural diversity, flourishes on the high street. Mshale Designs (exquisite Nigerian haute couture) next to M. Maze’s Eel and Pie House, opposite Timograce Variety Afro/Caribbean Foods and Boutique, beside Achuherbal Chinese acupuncture and herbalist. And past the olive trees in giant blue pots and the palms in the centre of the road, Persepolis, supplying all things Persian, recently initiated the “I love Peckham” campaign.
From the tragedy of Daminola Taylor’s death to the reality TV series Peckham Finishing School these extremes of Peckham and the diversities along the Rye are continents removed from the Contemporary British Fine Art Scene. Different realities existing alongside each other are frequently observed though seldom physically bridged, there is however a remarkable linking passage now at the back of the newly refurbished South London Gallery.
The South London Gallery, SLG as it has come to be known, has expanded to include a residency space, and catching up with Hannah Barry, a lavish cafe. First opened in 1878 as a Free Library, the SLG has undergone dramatic changes. (SLG’s website traces an interesting history to the present day). It was the appointment of Director David Thorp in 1992 that shifted the SLG from outpost venue to contemporary contender with exhibitions by, amongst others, Gilbert and George, Anselm Kiefer and Tracy Emin. Despite the enviable improvements and the delicious cafe food, it is the partially hidden gate at the back of the SLG that most intrigues me. Opening through the vine-covered fence the gate leads from the SLG through a line of blue 1950s prefab bungalows and into a Peckham council estate, thus bridging the divide. The gallery invigilator, sitting by an open-barred gate, tells me that this was once SLG’s front entrance and that a monastery stood in the grounds. He points out a small statue of an angel on a brick plinth. A large cat ambles past and an elderly Pacific Islander watches from his garden fence. The plane trees growing out of the monastery ruins are surrounded by estate buildings, Yinka Shonibare patterned the side of one of the tower blocks with a 13-floor-high Dutch wax design, blue swirly and surreally rising up from behind SLG, Shonibare’s giant Wall (2010) turned the tower into a strange poetry. Sadly it blew free from the structure and had to be taken down. The invigilator directs me to the small outreach shop where SLG artists-in-residence encourage estate children to make and play – whether charitable box ticking or facilitating learning fun without an agenda, the group of children were clearly having a good time, massing multi-coloured tape in thick layers over the floor and walls, echoing SLGs current exhibition Nothing is Forever. Wall texts and drawings include David Shirgley’s Poverty Elephant (2010), Mark Titchner’s Let the future tell the truth. Another world is possible (2010), and Fiona Banner’s Black Hawk Down 2004 (2010). Banner’s hand written memories of the American war film prompted me to wonder what kind of impact her Harrier and Jaguar jump jet installation might have had on the young PYG, who some months ran into the gallery for refuge. To address the multi-layered real drama of Peckham without a patronising tone takes a special kind of vision, Yinka Shonibare’s work went some way towards that interactive waltz without stepping on too many toes, Peckham needs visionaries to recognise its potential and make it happen. SLG and Hannah Barry bring it on.
Peckham/Camberwell Art Venues
ASYLUM Art Space (The Chapel, Caroline Gardens, SE15)
Flat Time House /Latham Archive (Bellenden Road, SE15)
Hannah Barry (Copeland Road industrial Park / Peckham Rye Multi Story Car Park, SE15)
Home; Live Art (Flodden Road, SE5)
House (Camberwell Church Street, SE5)
M2 Gallery (Kings Grove, SE15)
Peckham Space (Peckham High Street, SE15)
Sassoon Gallery (Blenheim Grove, SE15)
South London Gallery (Peckham Road, SE5)
The Sunday Painter (Blenheim Grove, SE15)