Poetry, stories and knitting

Catching Up With Keith Piper…

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After a series of messages, the day arrived, albeit a few online hiccups, I was finally connected to visual artist and multimedia practitioner Keith Piper, a London based artist and academic. I’ve had the pleasure of having a good old nosey around Keith’s work in The Place is Here, a group exhibition tracing some of the urgent conversations that took place between black artists, writers and thinkers during the 80s and in his current solo show, Unearthing The Banker’s Bones, at New Art Exchange until Sunday 11 June. I’ve also delivered a number of writing workshops based around his work. So now here was the chance to talk to the man himself and to ultimately sus out if we could claim him as a Nottingham lad!

PB: What are your links to Nottingham?
Keith: One of my earliest connections with Nottingham was through the Seventh Day Adventist church. We’d go to conferences and have visits, so my very first visit to Nottingham was to the Seventh Day Adventist church in St Anns in the 1970s. When I came here as a student I was still marginally interested in church and I remember going to the church in St Anns a few times but you know by that time I was already drifting away from it, or backsliding as they call it.

PB: How important do you think the churches were back then?
Keith: Churches are communities basically, and we need to acknowledge their role in terms of cementing together the Caribbean migrant communities. The Seventh Day Adventist church was a very interesting place in terms of its politics in the 1970s. The one I went to in Birmingham was very interesting politically. It was a place of racial struggle. Churches [back then] were a social focus and we actually needed that kind of thing, imagine what they [the Windrush generation] faced in the 50s, but that’s another story…

PB: So, you studied here in Nottingham?
My sister went to Trent Polytechnic; she was actually here in Nottingham before me because she is two years older. I remember distinctly because she finished her course so she was just leaving when I arrived. When I first arrived in 1980 I was in student flats behind the Bonnington Building. There were a number of student flats there. I was there for a year and then moved out. I remember moving briefly to a place on Woodborough Road. I didn’t stay there for that long because Gary Stewart, a friend from secondary school in Birmingham was also at Trent, and he managed to get on the list for a council flat. I think they were giving away flats in Hyson Green to students and he got a flat and we had this idea to form what we referred to as a ‘Black House’ (laughs). Donald Rodney had just started at Trent and he was looking for somewhere to live so we all moved in together and just, you know what I mean…

PB: No I don’t actually; tell me some of the things you got up to…
Keith: No, no, no (laughs) no obviously that was just a social thing… But what started there was in retrospect a very interesting social and cultural set of overlaps… and Gary was always a key figure in that. The flats were a very interesting social space you’d get students coming in, you’d have all kinds of different local people coming in, and you would have visitors from our wider national network of artists, family memebers etc coming in. One of the connections with Gary was he was doing electronics at Trent so he could build amplifiers for the local sound systems. I don’t know how he got involved with them but there was this local sound system who I think were called Turbo at the time or I think Turbo was one of the names they had. He was actually building some kind of complex sound generators and amps and other electronic devices for them, because in the day when you’re a sound system they wanted to make futuristic sound effects that they could mix down on top of the music, and he could do that, and so he was building this stuff for them. That’s how those guys started around the flat as well. That was the connection that led us to be more involved in the local Nottigham cultural scene. We were also doing exhibitions in different cities and people with the Blk Art group were coming and meeting in Nottingham as well.

PB: Did you realise then how important what you were doing was for black arts?
Keith: Obviously when you look back… when you’re young… it’s just like you know, people hanging out and doing a little thing here and a little thing there you know. When you think back, you think okay that’s interesting because there were particular individuals all active in that moment in Nottingham… It wasn’t just us…there was the Asian Dub Foundation.. Oni Dass, a founder member of the Asian Dub Foundation was also a student at Trent, and he would come round to the flat to jam with Gary. I was also a student at Trent at the time so you had different things happening there were lots of politicised students around Nottingham. It was the time of the Greenham Common there was lots of female students getting into the whole feminist thing, there was antiwar groups, lots of rock against racism type events happening, there was the Miners Strike, so it was a very particular time with lots of activism happening.

PB: Tell me about your Art.
Keith: I was always interested in work which kind of disrupted the expectations of what art could be. I was first drawn towards doing fine art because I was into the kind of immediacy and roughness of things like physical collage, bringing in all kind of materials, found materials and working with language as well. I would always describe myself as a mixed media artist. I would never describe myself as a painter or a sculpture, I use paints, I use objects, I use whatever, with lots of text on the work as well, which sort of took it outside of what was seen as fine art at the time.

PB: It’s the text in particular that summons me to your work, have you ever considered being a poet?
Keith: Well no not really, text has always been part of my practice. I’m not a poet. I would never consider myself to be a poet because I think that’s a very particular form. Written text is a part of the work and the text was often used as a way of carrying a very particular form and content in the work. You were always told that you couldn’t put words on a painting but it worked. I really wanted to start using that in my practice. I also remember that it was an incredible time in terms of black performance poetry. In Nottingham we were close to Martin Glynn and Andrew Campbell who did political performance poetry as part of ‘Turbo Black Arts’. I remember one time Marsha Prescod came to our flat. We were beginning to link up with performance poets like Shakka Dedi, Anum Iyapo and Fred Williams through the Black Art Gallery in London.. and their work was amazing… So I was very much aware of poetry as a live spoken form that could move and excite a crowd.. I saw what I was doing as very different in that it was written and encountered through a very different mechanism.

PB: In Unearthing The Bankers Bone you start off the exhibition with Sojourner Truth, why?
Keith: …well Sojourner Truth… when I started…. the root of the idea was the ‘Mars Rover’, a robot named after Sojourner, and so therefore this whole opening up of the idea of this robot which carries the name of this historically important black figure. But then when you look in depth at her life and her ideas there is a huge amount there in terms of her own story, coming out of slavery… using the legal system and becoming a key voice in terms of fighting slave labour, all these things… She’s a very interesting character for a whole range of reasons. Sometimes in terms of our recounting history we tend to stop at the key male figures. We’ll talk about Malcolm [X] we’ll talk about Martin [Luther King]… we should celebrate all these figures regardless of gender really. She’s an essential figure, essential in that discussion around robots as well.

PB: I couldn’t agree more!

I think he passed the test! I’d be happy to claim him as one of Nottingham’s creatives. If you want to see Keith’s work his solo exhibition is at New Art Exchange. Unearthing the Banker’s Bones opens from Saturday 1 April to Sunday 11 June 2017.


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Poetry Workshop -11 March 2017

If you are interested in putting pen to paper then why not join me for a creative writing session at Nottingham Contemporary on the 11th March. Click on the link for more details. img_7205

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