Art Life: South of The River | Reclaiming Time and Space

In 2014, after three years of BasementArtsProject being a thing, I was visited by two London curators from an organisation called Sluice. They had contacted me via the email and asked if wouldn’t mind being interviewed for their project, touring grassroots and independent arts venues around the country. Of course, I said yes!

On a warm and sunny Saturday in May of that year I opened up BasementArtsProject to find Sluice’s Karl England and curator Charlie Levine already on the step. Having arrived half an hour before opening time they had decided to sit on the piece of grass opposite BasementArtsProject and have a picnic whilst they waited. At the time this piece of grassland was twice as big as it is now, and was looked after by the council.

Tunstall Road land near Aldi / Poundland circa 2019

Fast forward to 2019 and the land has been sold off, the police station has been demolished and an Aldi, Poundland and carpark take up what was the majority of this grassy amenity space. A small portion remains thanks to a covenant and tree protection order on a dozen or so thirty year old sycamores. Sadly over time it has become overgrown and a haven for bad behaviour. 

From my vantage point at BasementArtsProject, also my family home, I get a clear view of people, thinking they are hidden from the public eye by the overgrowth, shooting up. The land has become overwhelmed by people using it as a lavatory and a shooting gallery. It has a regular turnover of residents making shelters with boxes and plastic to sleep in until they move on.

Bedding down in the grass 2019

South Leeds is an area of compassion. It is impossible to donate to everyone who asks for money, sometimes these requests come with menaces, and it is worrying and wearying no mistake. It is also an area with a high proportion of refugees making up its tightly packed population. Ultimately, this is a community living with a constant sense of impending tragedy. The overall feeling that you get from living this way, is to expect nothing and you will never be disappointed, yet there is however a strong sense of community and hope from within.

Phill Hopkins and Jadene Imbusch: Collaborations on the Corner. Presented at BasementArtsProject as part of the Yorkshire Sculpture International 2019

In 2019 basementArtsProject ran three projects as part of the Yorkshire Sculpture International, and associated Index Festival. Although the project was ostensibly about sculpture, our exhibitions at ‘The Basement’ focussed on the growing issues around homelessness. Whilst these events only lasted for the 100 days of the YSI, that was not to be the end of this subject or project. During that time we had also started two more projects along similar lines, only based in the public realm. These projects took on the subject of regeneration within, and for the benefit of, the community.

Now in 2022, we have nearly completed stage four of five. Whilst we never expected that this project would take the 100 days of the Yorkshire Sculpture International, we did not figure a global pandemic shutting things down for two years in the planning.

With things held up for as long as they had been, we tried to push things along as much as we could to keep the project alive in people’s minds. In May 2021 we decided to put our roughed out piece of rock in the public domain, and from the moment limited outdoor mixing was allowed, started working on it in full view of the public.

Artist: Keith Ackerman working with technician and sculptor John Barber on Jacob’s Ladder

At the outset the project had its naysayers, when we talked about it on social media platforms, many comments amounted to: ‘why do we need public sculpture when we don’t have enough money for the NHS / Police etc? Online conversations helped people’s understanding, but the real deal clincher between BasementArtsProject and the community came by placing the rock in public and working on it there. The response has been overwhelmingly positive with people bringing their families to watch Keith and John work and saying they cannot wait to see what it looks like when it is finished.

Student group from Liverpool John Moores University visiting the project

There have been many moments of engagement between us and the community through conversations sat on the stone. One woman recounted how, during her Dad’s illness, she would come back each week to see what progress had happened over the last seven days. Eventually her Dad died. We did not see her for some time, but when we next did she was camping on the land for a few days before eventually moving on. We have not seen her since. This is just one of many stories that have been both positive and sad from the last twelve months.

My favourite quote that I have returned to time and time again during this project comes from the African American author James Baldwin who says

Any political and social regime which destroys the self-determination of a people also destroys the creative power of that people.” When this has happened the culture of that people has been destroyed. And it is simply not true that the colonizers bring to the colonized a new culture to replace the old one, a culture not being something given to a people, but, on the contrary and by definition, something that they make themselves.” 

Whilst the work has been purely conversational over the last year; talking to the public about sculpture, art, politics, Henry Moore, community issues whilst we have worked, the practical workshops and upright installation come next, the project has gained its approval within the community. Despite the overriding feeling of abandonment through deprivation, everyone that we have spoken to feels invested already. We have yet to raise some of the funds for this project but we already have support from The Henry Moore Foundation, Leeds Philosophical & Literary Society, Leeds Art Fund and a private donation from a member of the community who said “I am all in favour of anything that makes it a nicer place to live“. We have also had help with some specialist equipment from South Leeds based arts organisation Slung Low and Gibson’s Tools of Garforth.

Keith Ackerman (R) John Barber (L)

In complete contrast to the recently installed statue of Margaret Thatcher in the centre of Grantham, the bad behaviour at this site has almost completely disappeared, and it has become less the health hazard that it had become over the previous seven years.

Lou Hazelwood & Chris Graham: Trade Routes and Trauma Sites. Aug-Sept 2021

Over the two years of lockdown it seemed that we had lost a large proportion of our local audience. But, a couple of weeks working in public at the side of the road led to us regaining the local audience by the time the second exhibition came around in November 2021.

Nicholas Vaughan: My Kingdom For A Croissant. Nov 2021-Feb 2022

And so, here we are in 2022, up and running once again with an indoor programme of activity whilst we finish the work outdoors. Two projects on hold throughout the lockdown have had to be cancelled due to the artists having to quit their studios during the pandemic for financial reasons. These are some of the unseen casualties of c***d as these artists attempt to put their working lives back together.

Sharon McDonagh: Resonate

The next project at BasementArtsProject, opening on Thursday 14th July 2022, is another exhibition by an artist that has been waiting since late 2019 for the opportunity show with us. Resonate by York based artist Sharon McDonagh is an exhibition that takes both a nostalgic and forensic view of urban decay. The work is being specially made for this exhibition and will be about the space in which it is being exhibited. 

We really hope you will be able to join us for this.

Sharon McDonagh, preparations for ‘Resonate’

Coming later in the year ‘Crazy Eddie’s Bargain Basement’. More details nearer the time

Edward Mortimer: Grenade (ceramic)

If you want to know more about what is happening and when at BasementArtsProject you can sign up by visiting our website and signing up for our Newsletter and Invites.

“No Change is possible without hope” Angela Y Davis


One Reply to “Art Life: South of The River | Reclaiming Time and Space”

  1. Hope comes in all different forms. We all need to look at things in our own individual ways. What we see there and how it makes us feel belongs to us and makes us who we are and who we become.
    Thank goodness that we have the opportunity to have groups like you at Basement Arts and Slung Low in our more ordinary and needy communities.

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