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The Bow Boys Archive

Shiraz Bayjoo talks about working with local students to explore the migrant history of east London for his current expo

While most of us are busy looking ahead to 2012, the latest exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is all about looking back; Shiraz Bayjoo delves into the social, cultural and political past of east London, in work emerging from his residency at the Bow Boys School in Tower Hamlets last year. Bayjoo grounds his work in ideas of identity and community, and has been involved in the Tate Britain’s Illuminating Cultures project since 2009 - an artist-led outreach programme that focuses on enriching the teaching of Middle Eastern and North African cultures in schools.

For his work on the Bow Boys Archive, Bayjoo urged Year 10 pupils to position their personal experiences of immigration within a wider historical framework, and worked alongside them to explore notions of individual and collective identity through art. The work on display is inspired by this residency, and Bayjoo reworks artefacts from the past (old newsreel footage, documentary photographs of protest, reclaimed furniture) into a powerful multi-media meditation on twenty-first century migrant communities. We spoke to the artist about some of the influences behind the exhibition.

Dazed Digital: How were you inspired during your time working with the students at the Bow Boys School?
Shiraz Bayjoo: The workshop process is an ideal situation, it allows for a two-way conversation. All the groups I work with are participants or collaborators in my projects rather than subjects. This allows for a far more in depth exploration. In the case of the Bow Boys, we went through a process of procuring images from the media world around them. I wanted to get a sense of what visual symbols they associated themselves with. It was through this process over six months that the boys kept coming back increasingly with more images of protest from the late 70s and 80s.

I was interested in how the boys, who themselves have not experienced much in the way of protest and civil movement, still felt an acute association with these images and notions - notions they did not necessarily understand in its full context. It’s this point that led me to explore how protest becomes a process in procuring and reforming identities, particularly in immigrant communities.

DD: What draws you to these narratives of fracturing cultural identities?
Shiraz Bayjoo: I’m interested in the socio-political strands that form the world we live in. How the hidden realities of marginalised groups and communities around the world are experienced. How history is perceived outside of the mainstream. From collective identity and memory, to individual and community narratives. Exploring identities and diasporas is a starting point, an intersection that allows for multi-layered narratives to be presented into the works.

DD: A lot of your work focuses on communities and cultures within east London in particular; is this a place you feel a particular affinity with?
Shiraz Bayjoo: Being based in east London has always been an advantage. With its post-industrial history, waves of different immigrant groups, the birth of Unionism, and the social state, east London is rich in narratives. It was with the help of the UK Uyghur community based in east London that I was able to translate a politicised poem Dihan (It Is Hard To Be A Farmer), to accompany my short video piece about Urumqi, the industrialised capital of Xinjiang, China.

DD: For the show you've worked with a lot of appropriated footage and reclaimed objects; what is it about fusing imagery from the past with the present day that you find interesting?
Shiraz Bayjoo: Research projects often take you into archives, where one finds a wealth of visual material. However as a contemporary artist, the nature of my work demands that such material be placed into a contemporary context. It’s at this intersection that archived or procured imagery and material is processed into works that try to place the present into a greater context.

DD: You’ve also incorporated images, documents, video and digital projection; what do you feel is the benefit of using this many mediums?
Shiraz Bayjoo: The processes in painting, having been trained as a painter, always underpin my approach to photography and video. Different media lends itself more appropriately to different aspects of my work. Presenting works as installations seems more appropriate to the subjects I explore and aesthetic nature of my work. In this way, presenting audiovisual with paintings can become a seamless transition.

DD: What projects are you working on now/after the exhibition?
Shiraz Bayjoo: In 2012 I will be revisiting the Social Archive project with INIVA. I will also be starting a series of new research projects, including a citizen archiving project with ex-homeless hostel residents around their experience of the Olympics.

Artists in Residence: Shiraz Bayjoo and DARTER, Whitechapel Gallery, until 26 Feb 2012