This summer, before returning to campus, I’m spending some time conducting thesis research in London. Framing my London experience before I arrived here, one of my professors emailed me the iconic Samuel Johnson quote, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Thus, when I’m not in the libraries and archives, I’m taking time to explore this sometimes lovely, sometimes desolate city. Indeed, London has proven to be surprising, enriching, and always complicated.
On one such occasion, I went on a “London Graffiti and Street Art” walking tour with the Free Tours by Foot company in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. (As a side note, I’ve been on several of these tours, and would highly, highly recommend them to anyone in London!)
In many ways, aspects of this tour resembled aspects of a more “traditional” art museum tour. It was as if we treated the streets of London, in particular Brick Lane and nearby streets, as our gallery space. We discussed composition, form, technique, and sub-genres of street art—contextualizing the art both within the particular artist’s repertoire, as well as within the communities from which the art emerged. We focused on the details as our tour guide taught us ways of reading the works, but making room for alternative interpretations. For example, with the work shown in Photo 1, he asked us to consider where the viewer is relative to the art work. With the work shown in Photo 2, we discussed the reasons for making the piece so small and easy to miss.
In other ways, this art tour was quite unique. Because of the nature of street art, old art works are constantly painted over, and new ones constantly appearing. Thus, the tour route must be regularly updated to properly showcase the “highlights” pieces available at any given time. Fortunately, there are some regular stops on the tour, such as the “Star yard,” a cul-de-sac of walls where many prominent graffiti artists come to showcase their work (see photo 3).
This tour was also very special because our tour guide was a graffiti artist himself and well connected with the street art community, comprised of local and international artists. Throughout our tour, we crossed paths with people such as street artists, store owners whose store entrance the art decorated, the subject of a piece of street art, and the leader of a local graffiti art and garden project (see photo 4), all of whom seemed to be going about their regular routines. Chatting with these people about the art and their differing relationships to it was a novel experience, giving us a window into the vibrant street art culture our tour guide described, and enhancing our tour guide’s explanations about the camaraderie and code of honor that holds together this art community. This present-day, real-time context—in which artists are responding to contemporary economic, social, and political contexts, which I (as a contemporary consumer of art) in part share—gave the art a kind of immediacy and relevance that was particularly valuable but difficult to achieve otherwise.
There were numerous layers to our tour guide’s presentation of graffiti and street art, both in the layers of the analysis he provided and in the layers yet to be unpacked by the audience. One such complexity involved the question of representation, broadly and variously defined. Street art is an industry in which the artists are predominantly men, and many are White. However, in the art we saw, many of the subjects depicted were women. Geishas were particularly popular, and we also saw a piece depicting a Bangladeshi child (see photo 5), which is rich with meaning since it was in a Bangladeshi immigrants neighborhood.
Thus, with respect to representation, perhaps street art and “museum art” are not so different, with both needing to address and reconcile the questions posed by representation. Part of this task of negotiation and reconciliation rests, of course, on the shoulders of curators and tour guides of these gallery spaces: on the streets, in the communities, and in the museums. However, part of this task is also the responsibility of the consumers of art. To ask: who is doing the depicting, and who is being depicted? Perhaps, the answers to these 2 questions may productively affect how we understand the artist’s message, what we can glean about the depicted subject, and how we are to establish our relationship to the art.
From my vantage point, it seems that the PUAM, in the “highlights” tours given by student tour guides, have begun to consider these issues of representation in dialogue with our visitors. For instance, in some tours, when approaching Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates,” we may ask about the position of women in this painting and their relationship to the men. When approaching Angelica Kauffman’s “Portrait of Sarah Harrop (Mrs. Bates) as a Muse,” we may ask what aspect of the relationship between female painter and female subject this painting preserves. To see for yourself how PUAM addresses these questions of representation, visit the museum (and take a “highlights” tour)!