Decades of unauthorized creative activity alongside London’s waterways have created an ever-changing, al fresco ‘art gallery’ which is now as ineluctable a part of the city’s canals as the narrowboats which putter along them. This summer, The Canals Project, curated by Cedar Lewisohn, aims to shine a spotlight on this area with a series of new works by high pro le international street artists. James Finucane reports.
Meander down any stretch of London canal, from Camden Lock to Limehouse, and you’ll find work by some of the leading lights of UK street art, amid an urban palimpsest of tags, paintings and stencils, all executed with varying degrees of sophistication.
The low-rise warehouses that flank the canals, which provide the canvases for these works, have long proved irresistible to graffiti and street artists who thrive upon their seclusion and the receptive community of artists who often live and work in these industrial relics. This combination of factors has seen the rate of illegal artworks increase exponentially over the last 20 years, with the likes of Sweet Toof ’s ubiquitous dentures, or Mighty Mo’s grinning apes, two artists from Hackney’s prolific Burning Candy collective, typical of works to be found canal-side. Now, a hand-picked selection of some of the most innovative international exponents of street art will add a series of works to these unique environs as part of a new curatorial initiative called The Canals Project.
The finished murals will be supplemented by a host of talks, films and events that will spotlight the ever-expanding tradition of street art and graffiti in London, as well as some of the wider issues regarding the global street art phenomenon. Led by artist and curator Cedar Lewisohn, who assembled Tate Modern’s Street Art exhibition in 2008, the project aims to encourage dialogue within the local community, as well as appeal to the wider street-art fanbase. Lewisohn is conscious, however, that the newly commissioned artworks along the Lee Navigation and Hertford Union canals should complement rather than eclipse pre-existing works.
With that that in mind, Lewisohn selected an eclectic mix of artists, and while some of them will be relatively unknown to UK audiences, each has established a reputation for pushing boundaries with their work, whether it is their innovative approaches to materials and space, or the seamless integration of disparate influences and styles into a cohesive and engaging whole.
Fraternal Interesni Kazki (Interesting Tales) herald from the Ukraine and boast one of the most rapidly growing reputations in street art. Their participation in the project is even more of a coup considering it is their first artistic endeavor on UK soil. Reminiscent of the Brazilian sibling duo, Os Gemesos, not only for their familial connection but also the vivid style of their allegorical, narrative painting, Interesni Kazki will surely ignite the inimitable, quirky setting of the canal-side with their fantastical creations. French artist Remed is perhaps the best known of the artists selected for the project. Distinctly European in style, his vivid, cubist-inspired murals are guaranteed to bring some Gallic air and art-historical references to the fore. Labelling himself as a ‘public space and street artist’, Remed’s predominant interest in muralism and the language of public art is an integral feature of his practice. Likewise, but for different reasons, Brazilian artist Zezão is seemingly tailor-made for The Canals Project, having built his career around painting site-specific artworks in storm drains and sewers, in his native Sao Paulo. It’s easy to see why he was the first name on Lewisohn’s wish-list.
Reflecting the growing prevalence of abstraction in street art, Glaswegian Mark Lyken and Italian geometricist Teo Moneyless will undertake the first of the commissions, with Swedish artist Ekta Ekta completing the line-up. Drawing on his experience of collaborative projects in his native Gothenburg, Ekta will undertake a residency at the Gainsbourgh School in Hackney Wick and collaborate with the school children to make his final contribution.
Of those selected to take part, Lewisohn says: “ This is a great group of artists. Not a great group of street artists, just a great group of artists, full stop. The idea is to put on a project that appeals to all the different types of people who use the canals. The canals themselves are a very inspiring setting and I know the artists will all respond to them in their own unique ways”.
The opportunity these overseas artists have enjoyed in London will be reciprocated with two international residencies in Brazil and Poland being offered to UK based street artists.
A seminar on Saturday 8 June at The White Building in Hackney Wick will invite an international panel of artists, academics, enthusiasts and performers from across the creative industries to share their views on issues regarding the interplay of self-expression, protest, politics and art in public space. Speakers include Hackney-based artist Bob and Roberta Smith, Professor Iain Borden from the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London, Dr Lina Khatib of Stanford University, and Polish street artist and curator Sławek Czajkowski (Zbiok). The main reason behind The Canals Project is to encourage more people to discover and appreciate the graffiti and street art which lies along the quietly shimmering waterways of East London. How will we know if this has worked? Get down to the towpath and have a look for yourself.
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