When I was a student at Goldsmiths in the early 60s, Laurie Grove Baths, almost adjacent to the college was, well, Laurie Grove Baths … destination for those families and individuals lacking home facilities and for regular crocodiles of children from nearby schools, looking forward to splashing around and maybe even learning to swim. The baths – more properly designated Swimming Baths, Slipper Baths and Laundries – were opened in 1898 as part of attempts to improve local health and sanitation. At roughly that time, some 1,000 families in the Deptford area were living in single rooms, with shared outside toilets, and disease was rife.
Come the early years of this century, the baths were no longer seen to fulfil a necessary function and were acquired by Goldsmiths with a view to turning them into a showcase for contemporary art. The architecture collective, Assemble, winners of the Turner Prize, were commissioned to redesign the buildings, while maintaining much of their original structure and protecting the Grade II listed water tanks and plant-works. The new gallery – Goldsmiths CCA – opened in 2018.
The current show, which my daughter Molly and I visited recently, features the work of the Algerian born artist, Mohamed Bourouissa, who uses photography, film and installation to examine and portray – to celebrate wherever possible – the lives and culture of communities who are living on what might be termed the edges of society, drawing attention to the ways in which they have been victimised by the twin forces of colonialism and capitalism.
Although, as I’ve said, Bourouissa was born in Algeria, he grew up in the banlieue of Paris, which, as the Exhibition Guide suggests, enables him to bring a specific view of the street and hip-hop culture to his work. As a counter-balance to the negative images that were shown in the media after the Paris riots in 2005, for Périphéries (2005-08) Bourouissa orchestrated a series of photographs showing a broader set of circumstances, some making reference to classical paintings such as Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (right, below) with the flag being lowered rather than raised.
Particularly effective in a not dissimilar urban context is the sound installation in the Roden Courtyard Gallery, which has reinforced iron along one wall and is open to the air, the abstracted voices rising and falling before echoing off into the sky – all the more effective on the day we visited for the two buzzards – yes, buzzards in New Cross – that were circling overhead.
Bourouissa’s usual method of working, when he chooses to focus on a group or area of society with which he is unfamiliar, is to immerse himself within their culture by living with them for a period of time, as he did with the Australian Aboriginal Yuin people from the South Coast of New South Wales, resulting in the installation, Brutal Family Roots (2020). This was also the case for Bourouissa in the Strawberry Mansion area of North Philadelphia, where the black members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club challenge the predominant image of the white cowboy, as shown in the film, Horse Day (2015).
Whoa! There are four more pieces in the exhibition that I haven’t touched upon, including a beautifully made film, All-In (2012), which shows coins being engraved inside the Paris Mint to the accompaniment of the French hip-hop artist, Booba, singing of his efforts to extricate himself from life on the streets.
This is vibrant, challenging art that is varied in its means and consistent in its concerns. It’s a long time since I felt such an almost visceral excitement walking around an exhibition – I know, it’s a long while, a pair of small but tasty Rauschenberg shows aside, since I walked round any exhibitions – but this show at CCA makes it all too vividly clear why art can be exciting and important. It’s open until August 1st – see it if you can.
Molly and I were still buzzing as we stepped out onto the busy thoroughfare that is New Cross Road, and which doesn’t seem to have changed a great deal in almost sixty years. What we were in need of, the CCA café being closed, was somewhere calming to relax with good coffee and good grub and we found them just across the street at the rather wonderfully named Wakey Wakey. [Older readers – much older readers – will remember this as the opening cry that signalled the beginning of the Billy Cotton Band Show.] New Cross, it’s closer than you think.