I first became aware of Shafiur Rahman when I was taking shots of ROA paint at The Foundary in Old Street a couple of years ago. When I uploaded the images from the afternoon onto my computer I discovered that roughly half of them had Shafiur dead centre in the middle as he tried to capture ROA’s every move for his upcoming documentary ‘Brick Lane In Art’. This introduction of getting to know Shafiur through the lens of my camera still makes me smile…
But Shafiur was well know in the ‘street art scene’ and in the local communities around Brick Lane long before I ever knew him, he is an avid street art fan, documentary maker and part of the Six Oranges team. He has been instrumental in securing a number of large walls, notably the largest one in and around Brick Lane with the monumental heron by ROA. Six Oranges are based in the heart of Brick Lane in Hanbury Street and are creators of social documentaries that tackle issues such as migrant workers, labour exploitation, genocide, segregation and the odd one about street art:
In between his busy schedule ‘Shaf’ kindly took the time out to answer some questions:
What came first for Six Oranges, the art or the humanitarian issues?
Shaf: I was a right wee diddy when it came to art at school. Nevertheless I remember this particular art lesson at my secondary school in Glasgow. The teacher was discussing Brueghel’s painting of Icarus, basically Icarus flies away from Crete with wings his father had made for him. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun as the sun’s rays could melt the wax binding the feathers, of course Icarus forgets his dad’s advice and his wings disintegrate and he crashes to his death.
My teacher was describing the painting – of the normal life going on in the foreground while in the far distance Icarus is tumbling. She used some words I have never forgotten:
“So here is a personal tragedy. Life goes on all around while his personal tragedy goes completely unnoticed.” I was struck by that phrase “tragedy goes completely unnoticed.”
I kept thinking about it and wondering about the significance of it and I guess I came to the conclusion that this was the saddest thing, that a tragedy should go unnoticed. That stuck in my mind and in a sense making documentaries about humanitarian issues is about exactly that: so that tragedies do not go unnoticed.
Do you see parallels between street artists and the people you document in
your films, the migrants and immigrants in need of a channel to be heard or
seen (which you provide)?
Shaf: The people who work and live near Brick Lane today inhabit more than one world and they speak more than one language and have more than one idenity. Stuart
Hall, a cultural commentator, describes how such people are the product of “several
interlocking histories and cultures” and “they speak from the “in-between” of
different cultures….. finding ways of being both the same as and at the same time
different from the others amongst whom they live”. You could describe street art
similarly, it inhabits a particular space and it does so differently, like migrants
occupy the categories of “outsiders” or “marginal people.”
Has Six Oranges played an instrumental role in getting the local communities
of Brick Lane to embrace street or was it already an organic growth that was
going to happen anyway?
I will say that when we worked with Ben Slow, Joe Deane and Joseph
Loughborough on the “Ma o Shishu” (mother and child) piece we were quite
overwhelmed by the number of local people who adored the piece and told us so. It
caused a real stir, it changed the street and people interrupted their daily lives, they
stopped, they would snap away with their phones or cameras and they talked about it,
people were profoundly moved by it. I mean it was really something! To this day I get people tell me to request Ben to paint it again.
The little film we made went onto to play at the ICA at a film festival and TV broadcast too. When we worked with Pure Evil and ROA to put up the big bird, there again we saw a tremendous response and that bird attracts a lot of people to the area.
Does the street art in and around Brick Lane benefit the local community?
Shaf: Its a double edged thing, the vibe and buzz helps the area commercially I guess, at the same time gentrification pushes people out, including artists and galleries.
There are inevitably losers in this process.
Are there any pieces of street art that you would actively dissuade an artist
from placing around Brick Lane?
Shaf: No pigs!!!! Aaaargh… just kidding! I am a keen supporter of free speech. I would not dissuade street artists from tackling anything whatsoever. In fact, I always worry when a street artist asks me if their idea for a piece is OK. Cosmo Sarson asked me about swastika symbols, I gave him the context of swastikas but I also told him to do whatever is necessary for his concept.
Of course there is room for misunderstanding but artists must not be put off by that. It is wrong and stupid to think of the Brick Lane community as closed minded Mullah types. If however you are out to incite then you should realise that people are going to
notice and take you to task.
One confession though – I always communicate the owner’s wishes to the street artist. Invariably that wish is “No pigs”. I am resigning myself to the possibility that this will
become my epitaph.
One wall by Mear One recently attracted a lot of controversy, has this been
the only controversial piece in the history of the ‘Hanbury St Open Air
Shaf: Hanbury Street’s Open Air Gallery (as you call it) started with Stik doing his reclining Stik figures on the gates in front of the open space.. Stik being the smooth talker that he is managed to persuade Mr Hussein to give the green light to paint on his property. That opened up the gates, literally – as well as the side wall and of
course the huge wall which has the bird on it.
After Stik‘s reclining figures, came Ben Slow‘s Ma o Shishu on the side wall.
Jeff Aerosol augmented it with his Romanian Troubadours. That was followed by Roa‘s phenomenal bird completed in only 8 hours.Then there was Blam’s piece of Oscar the Grouch again on the side wall. That had a lot of fans.
Then a complete change with Cosmo Sarson‘s painting of the girl. That was featured as a filler in this year’s TV coverage of the Paralympics.
The gates have attracted attention from artists like the Chilean paste-up specialist Otto Schade, Macay and also Mr Penfold and Malarky. Behind the gates, the walls attracted Dscreet, Kid Acne and others.
Dale Grimshaw has had a go on both sides of the street. Fin Dac took the
risk to go on the other side of the street with his striking piece of an Asian girl.
And this year Ben Slow returned to the side wall with his superb “screaming faces” piece depicting English Defence League and Islamic extremist. Again that was a piece that worried Ben at first but he was completely stunned by the positive response he got. Fashion magazines and TV news channels liked doing shoots in front of it. None of these have created any controversy whatsoever.
Mear One‘s painting uniquely managed to open up a can of worms and landed the owner of the wall with a defacement notice from the council. Macay‘s reclining Goya-esque figure got spray painted. I saw the miscreants. They weren’t the religious type out to enforce female modesty – trust me!
You recently travelled to South Africa and took along Ben Slow to paint a portrait of Ruth First as a commemorative piece, would you say you are educating people through art and making it more digestible?
Shaf: The Ruth First mural appears like a commemorative piece and a beautifully
poignant one too. But in the context of the documentary, this is not how it will
appear. It is a bit bleaker than that. I have long been involved in South Africa and I
am privileged to know many of those who were on the front line and it concerns me
to hear their feelings these days.
The pieces I am commissioning allude to a fading political project. The people in the commissioned images all died violently in the struggle against apartheid. They represent a spirit and energy which is missing in the current context. So to remember them, where they worked, struggled or died is only partly a commemorative act but partly political too. And street art I believe is well suited to this political role.
Would you like the art in and around Brick Lane to be more conscious on a
Shaf: Sure, why not. The suited Council Officers doing the rounds will tell you otherwise though: “nothing political or offensive” but the canvas – the street – is not
politically neutral or inert, nor indeed naive as we saw with the Mear One piece. So
yes, let a hundred flowers bloom even if some are weeds.
What has been your favourite piece placed in the streets and which artist do you admire?
Shaf: London – Ma o Shishu by Ben Slow and Joe Deane. Paris – Mausoleum by Lek and Sowat. Palestine – Floating Away Girl by Banksy. Cape Town – The People Shall Govern, by Faith47. Lampedusa – Berlusconi as clown by M3.
I admire many artists and many genres but as you have cruelly only permitted me one artist and as we are talking street art it has to be Banksy.
What would you like to see more of?
Shaf: Once we had an idea to give the big bird wall to other artists. I asked Charley
Edwards what he thought of the idea. He told me not to be stupid. That was the
best advice I ever got! I think people would lynch me if I buffed it. So that is a round
about way of saying I would like to see more big pieces on big walls. Oh, and graff
too. Seems to be sadly relegated to Sclater Street around this area.
Is there is a question you can ask yourself?
Shafiur: What are my two favourite interview moments whilst filming street artists:
1. Nathan Bowen getting arrested after telling us the best way to avoid arrest was
to wear a high viz jacket and to paint in the City of London ( sorry bro if you are
reading this…but it made good footage).
2. Blek Le Rat, the Grandfather of Street Art and inspiration to many including
Banksy asking me at his home outside Paris: “So tell me do you know who Banksy
An absolutely massive thank you to Shaf for being such a good interviewee
Check out the Six Oranges site for more news, films and updates you know you need in your life: http://sixoranges.net/ and the trailer for Brick Lane In Art:<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/20102176″>Brick Lane in Art: The other side</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/sixoranges”>Shafiur Rahman</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>