Summer is finally at its height, and with it Bristol seems again to be embracing a feeling of optimism.
After an unpredictably hard start to the year and the worst crisis in decades, its businesses want to start over, its restaurants, pubs and shops are reopening, and art galleries are back with a thrilling programme of shows. After more than four months of lockdown, our city is trying to restart life again.
It is not easy, but we must admire our citizens’ bravery and enthusiasm. Some examples: friends of mine are preparing new books or exhibitions, opening new places to gather and be creative. On the arts front, though artists are struggling, the RWA exhibition hall reopened on 1 August with a show on St Ives, while Kosar Contemporary in Bedminster and That Art Gallery in Upper Maudlin Street are offering local artists the opportunity to show their work.
But for me, one exhibition in particular is symbolic of both this ‘reopening’ but also what has emerged in Bristol from the experience of the past five months.
This is Hassan Hajjaj’s ‘The Path’ at the Arnolfini – an explosion of colours and liveliness, which is a celebration of joy and optimism for the value it places on people, creativity, and quirkiness.
Hassan was born in Morocco and moved to London with his parents in 1973. At that time none of his family spoke English, and there were no other Moroccans living in their neighbourhood. So, they had to adapt – and adaptation is what this entirely self-taught artist has always lived by, inspired as he is by underground music and street culture.
His photos, films and visual experiments are inspired by numerous influences: his Moroccan culture, the marketing commercials that dominated his youth in London, and his experience in the deeply mixed and multicultural capital. ‘The Path’ represents the two parts of his journey, offering a collection of portraits and scenes representing, on the one hand, women in Muslim dress, their faces covered by bright and playful veils and hijabs, and African artists on the other.
These multiple images are a great fit for our 2020 ‘strangeness’, not yet ‘normal’, matching as they do the new world in which we live: a place where we need to protect each other from coronavirus by covering our fragile faces and observing social distancing, while also celebrating the work of black artists.
And these two experiences have seen Bristol emerge a different city, after months of lockdown.
While deep concerns about the pandemic, about energy use and biodiversity, and about the coming economic crisis are having dramatic impacts on our communities, Bristol’s place in the global response to the murder of George Floyd in the United States has marked the city as much as – if not more than – the Covid-19 crisis.
The tearing down of the statue of Edward Colston on 7 June changed Bristol’s relationship with its past, and is now helping shape its future.
This revolutionary move has inspired a deep and complicated debate about the inequality from which so many in Bristol suffer – a debate that is far from over: institutions, businesses, intellectuals and many others, have and continue to question their relations with black citizens, whether they are of African and Caribbean descent, more recent immigrants, mixed-race people, or those from other ethnic groups, all of whom suffer equally though in different ways, from deplorable levels of discrimination or a lack of life-chances in the UK.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many of these inequalities, with these groups suffering disproportionately as they have sought adequate healthcare, or in their work as key frontline workers.
But there has also been an upside to Bristol’s experience of the five months of crisis, Bristolians having come forward with very creative responses: charities like Caring in Bristol, Feed the Homeless and the Bristol Food Union have organised housing for the most vulnerable, as well as helping feed frontline workers and homeless people; Facebook groups have offered local support to families in need, and artists have organised fundraising in order to upscale the response to the pandemic.
Little was expected of the Government. Its approach intensified anxiety and failed to provide the emergency funds needed. And as Colston’s statue fell, and the deep need and demand that the political leadership show its understanding of what had led to support across the UK for the Black Lives Matter protests, it was soon realised that the citizens of Bristol should take matters into their own hands. Which is what they did, and have continued to do.
Now, we can reflect on some of the lessons we have drawn or absolutely must draw from these multiple crises.
Some really do understand that we cannot return to ‘business as usual’ – that we must clearly define and live by our values and take care of the most vulnerable in our communities, that we must truly value key workers, and must respect their needs when they are immigrants and are going through challenging times, with Brexit having made their nightmare worse.
Among artists, there is now a call for artistic and cultural platforms for those the Black Lives Matter campaigners designate as ‘melanated voices’. Others are demanding urgent responses to the climate crisis, which is being studied for its possible links to the origins and the surge of coronavirus.
Initiatives like these are now appearing across Bristol: the Food Union has just created the ‘Eat Out Help Out’ initiative; the M Shed is preparing an exhibition on the role of Edward Colston in the slave trade; schools, and teachers like Aisha Thomas are rethinking the curriculum; Councillor Cleo Lake is campaigning for reparations and is promoting Greens of Colours.
Throughout Bristol’s long association with the slave trade, a parallel historical thread also exists, which has seen the city rebel against this crime, against exploitation, and for social progress; when for four months of 1963 Bristolians boycotted the city’s buses in protest at the refusal of the bus company to employ black drivers, the protest changed history In the wake of such protests, Bristol also gave birth to some of the most multicultural and politically-aware artists in the country – rappers like Tricky, street artists like Banksy, and bands like Massive Attack.
Not coincidentally, as their ecological tour was rendered impossible by the pandemic, members of Massive Attack have used their time in lockdown to come back with a unique art and music project: three videos entitled ‘Eutopia’, inspired by the 16th century English lawyer, writer, and statesman Thomas More’s book Utopia. Three songs were written by the band’s main creator Robert Del Naja, in collaboration with his sound engineer Euan Dickinson; they will be used as a platform for three experts to discuss climate justice policies (Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres, a signatory to the 2015 Paris Agreement), tax justice (French economist Gabriel Zucman) and a universal basic income (SOAS professor Guy Standing).
Their messages are being channelled through three magnificent films created in collaboration with filmmaker Mark Donne in London and A.I. artist in Germany, with vocals from Scotland (Young Fathers) and the United States (Saul Williams, and the band Algiers): a multi-layered achievement, which shows that once again Bristol can lead the way with positive and constructive messages, despite all the difficulties – proof that knowledge and creativity are the only sustainable answers to crises, and that a community can always build forward and better, whatever stands in its way.
Melissa Chemam is a Bristol-based writer, reporter and radio producer, as well as being a lecturer in journalism at UWE/BIMM Bristol and Writer-in-Residence at the Arnolfini Gallery