Us Here Now exhibition was only ever temporary. The buzz had been so great local people got in touch with us & the surrounding businesses asking who had taken the exhibition away. People were pissed off. In 2021 we exhibited Us Here Now at the Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay– an historical building which governed the docks, the people coming and going (some of which would make Cardiff home) and the wealth that would build the city. A building that lies in direct proximity to the Welsh Senedd where those in power make decisions on behalf of our communities. That proximity felt like our photographs were in direct conversation with power – a rare occasion, to see people from East Cardiff represented in a positive, powerful and equal way.
The outpouring of requests from the local community to put something on the wall was too much for us to not pay attention. With support from Arts Council Wales & Tesco’s (who own the wall) we began conversations about a street artist painting a mural which would be created with, by and for the community. Through a process of gathering artist recommendations & then working with our Sounding Board (made up of local residents) to choose an artist – we approached Helen Bur an international street artist (who once lived in Cardiff!) We were so chuffed when Helen agreed – she immediately got what we wanted to do & turned out she knew and was friends with Jon Pountney the photographer from Us Here Now.
Helen came down to meet & get to know the community. We spent a day at the wall – with chalks inviting people to write and draw what they’d like to see & celebrate about the neighbourhood. We hosted a workshop with the Youth Club – reimagining St Mellons, what is there, and what people are proud of. We knew from our experiences of growing up in the community – that the spirit, camaraderie and community vibes of East Cardiff were what make the fabric of the place. We wanted to celebrate it, to share the magic & challenge the negative narrative that’s been hard to shake off. We spoke about how much nature there was, but how hard it feels sometimes to make the most of it – especially when past history shapes so much of how we experience a place. It’s these spaces that often feel unsafe, and unwelcoming or that hold so much darkness for communities. We thought about what it might mean to reclaim that space – how we could create new memories & associations with the place.
We decided that we’d use the fields behind Tesco next to the woods to do a mass chilled lie-in – taking inspiration from protests where activists just lie down to reclaim a space/ a place/ or protest. We spent the day having a picnic, invited local people to dress in bright clothes, have a picnic and lie down on the grass so we could capture them for the painting. We photographed 50 people that day. People with their kids, dogs, the youth club kids. One nan came back three times with different people – dropping them off in the car and watching as we photographed. It felt special.
With help from Jon, Helen took the photos away and created a collage that featured some of the people we photographed. For the past 9 days Helen and Camilla have been at the wall painting – first painting it orange so the colours popped, then sketching on the people and then paying attention to each and every person as she brought them to life.
Each day people have stopped, talked to us, asked questions, commented and sometimes just watched as the artwork was brought to life. Young girls watching Helen in awe, saying I want to do that too, a lady in her 80s saying how colour is so important to have a healthy life & see the world differently. Paying attention to the detail – the expertise & the care and the commitment to make something so painstakingly powerful.
Camilla our Producer says it’s about imagination – how we nourish imagination, how it inspires us, teaches us, helps us think differently about our world, our circumstances, each other– and dares us to dream. Sometimes, when neighbourhoods are built they forget about making space & spaces to dream – in the 80s when St.Mellons was built my mum recalls how exciting it was & how it was a privilege to be given such good council housing. In the past years, we’ve seen how neglect, greed and lack of attention to our neighbours can have really detrimental long-lasting impacts on people and also on our imaginations.
Chantal, our Community Producer notices how many people stop, talk, have a feeling of pride – alongside reminiscing of past times – an acknowledgement to the history & all the great people who have grafted to make things happen. The movements created by those who have invested in the area and cared deeply.
If you go to the mural and walk around the corner you can see the aftermath of the community centre that was knocked down almost four years ago. Nothing stands there, its just rubble, overgrown weeds and a fence to stop people going in. We have a newly designed Community Hub, its great – but its council & its services & it doesn’t belong to the community in the same way as the old one.
What we know despite the times we live in and the community centre not being there & spaces to come together are limited. Is that imagination is always there and communities like St.Mellons have it in abundance, it just isn’t talked about in the press or features because focusing on the drama sells. In the margins is where all the best stuff happens, where it’s really valued & means something to people – and part of the process is opening up all that stuff & tapping into imaginations so we can all be part of dreaming.
The day Helen finished painting there was a make-shift party outside the GP surgery. An umbrella from the Willows pub on top of a scaffold tower made it look like a pirate ship – a plate of cakes & some cans of Pina Colada. Kids on their bikes, people with their trolleys, kids and babies playing on the pavement. It felt special. Helen painted for 9 days solid and she did it with so much care & love & understanding of how important this was for the community. And now it’s been left in the hands of the community – and as I write this my sister tells me there’s a group of older lads who sit there in the evenings, outside the chicken shop just looking at it – the guardians of the mural.