Head north up the high street from Harrow & Wealdstone Station and you’ll struggle to miss Yinka Ilori’s latest project.
After all, it’s several metres high, splashed on the side of a building and realised in the kind of hues that cut through the stimuli of the street below. Once unremarkable red bricks have been transformed with technicolour sunrises, rainbows and ice cream cones. Among them are three resolute words: ‘Love always wins’.
Situated a stone’s throw from his old studio, Ilori’s mural design is a winner itself – one of several successful proposals that had been put to a public vote. ‘I wanted to remind people that we still have love, each other and our communities,’ he says. That simple mantra, he adds, is ‘an open message’, perhaps even a form of therapy, in which onlookers might find a myriad of personal meanings.
In the year that cancelled art fairs and left galleries fighting for funding, September saw the first ever London Mural Festival leave a precious legacy of over 50 vast artworks across the capital.
In the same month, designer Camille Walala unveiled one of London’s largest public art projects yet – less mural than full makeover, her exuberant transformation of Leyton High Road was the culmination of a crowdfunding campaign with street art collective Wood Street Walls. The whittling down to Walala’s final design had also been a community effort.
The mural, as it turns out, is pandemic proof. Just as accessible public art has come into sharper focus, a shift towards time spent outdoors has sparked conversations about how our collective spaces might serve us better (and brighter). Walala, whose urban utopia involves ‘pedestrianised streets with public art on every corner’, says murals are democratic by design.
‘They’re out in the open for everyone to see and experience, so people feel more comfortable having an opinion,’ she explains. ‘Abstract art can be less intimidating – a more gentle way to put creativity out there.’
Participation is a key tenet of Argentinian-born muralist Patricio Forrester’s practice. As founder of community initiative Artmongers, he’s spent nearly two decades coaxing local councils to be braver with south London’s streets. ‘Artists with learning disabilities, for example, don’t have any claim on public space. By offering them a massive wall in the centre of Deptford, we’re completely breaking the expectations of what people with disabilities do.’
So what makes a good site for a mural? ‘It’s wherever there’s a need,’ says Forrester. ‘We’re planning a project with a primary school in Soho to give children who live in the heart of the capital an opportunity to mark their urban fabric with their ideas. It’s about agency, ownership, pride.’
Though Artmongers is well-rooted in south London, Forrester and his team have made trips to Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria and beyond, wielding collaborative art as a tool to creatively empower remote communities and those in refugee camps. ‘We’re not there out of guilt, but for the pleasure in creating something extraordinary together. There’s this big question: where does the art happen? Is it the piece itself? The wall? Is it the experience the group has, or the sense of achievement? It could be all of those things.’
They’ll be joining a creative community in full swing, not least Scottish-Egyptian artist, teacher and social activist Sara Abdalla, aka Creative Visionaries Studio, who brought ‘a bricolage of British, Arab and African influences’ to the Tybalds Estate as part of the London Mural Festival.
Then there’s the vibrant, fluid lines of Brighton-based Lois O’Hara, the enigmatic symbols and motifs of map typology Kasia Breska paints across Leeds, and the sunny displays of sisterhood and inclusivity by Zoë Power in Bristol, itself a hub of street art heritage. Formed in 2019 by four female artists, Cobolt Collective is a response to the gender imbalance of Glasgow’s growing street art scene.
Perhaps it’s precisely the lack of formal education in public art that has drawn a diverse, multi-disciplinary crowd to the medium. A muralist might be an illustrator, a colourist or a textile designer by trade. Manchester creative Ibukun Baldwin, officially the latter, managed to combine both creative outlets in creating a mural for the ‘Tapestries’ exhibition at the city’s Whitworth art gallery, and painting the walls of her ethical fashion store.
London-based designer and colourist Adriana Jaros, who also transplants the architectural silhouettes of her prints and 3D pieces into mural form, says a public work of art can act as ‘the fingerprint of an area’. And what red-blooded artist of any inclination could resist the blank canvas of an entire building?
Self-taught designer and artist Katrina Russell- Adams, whose mural projects include a geometric façade for architecture firm BAT Studio and a kaleidoscopic barge, has priorities firmly in place after a bike accident last summer left her recovering from a brain injury. ‘I’m only working on projects that bring me joy,’ she says. And that’s the beauty of public art – the joy is ours, too.
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration February 2020
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