Originally published in Issue 1 of New Objective Magazine.
The old bastions of creative output in the East End have in many ways become victims of their own success in recent times, with exorbitant rents pushing out artists and squeezing smaller galleries. One of the beneficiaries of this process over the last decade has been Peckham, with its plethora of striking former industrial buildings, diverse community and previously untapped potential. The result has been a blossoming of studios, artist-led spaces and galleries, predominantly huddled around the nucleus of Peckham Rye station, which today boasts a concentration of galleries to rival areas in the East.
Locals, like Arcadia Missa gallery’s Rozsa Farkas will tell you that a vibrant arts community has always existed Peckham “this isn’t new, just more people know about it. I grew up in Peckham, there was never a shortage of art.” You can certainly see her point when you consider that somewhere like South London Gallery, has been around since the late 19th century. It’s still one of the most recognisable and prestigious galleries across London, never mind Peckham. Despite the institution’s age, South London Gallery has remained at the bleeding edge, attracting international talent, with a bold programme which continues to take risks. In 2010 the gallery unveiled a charming new cafe, gardens and a dwelling which provides residencies for emerging artists. This opening seemed to coincide serendipitously with the influx of new galleries a little further south-east.
Peckham’s proximity to the likes of Camberwell College of Arts and Goldsmith’s University has long ensured it access to a deep well of bright new creative talent, and it seems important to take the recent proliferation of creative spaces in this broader context; the infrastructure has long been there and Peckham’s creative heart should not be overlooked in favour of more recent adornments like the trendy bars and upmarket restaurants.
In many ways Hannah Barry gallery typifies the new wave of galleries in Peckham: fresh, exciting, housed in a previously industrial setting, and quite hard to find. It’s nestled unassumingly on the corner as you turn left out of Peckham Rye station in a former meat-freezing facility, with no obvious signage. There’s a cavernous ground floor gallery which played host to Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq’s solo exhibition Clear Black Smoke in late 2014. The exhibition was sparsely populated with cool, geometric sculptures, fragile despite their almost kinetic quality. Upstairs, there’s a smaller but by no means diminutive second gallery. Barry first ventured into the art scene of Peckham in 2006 working with a group of artists in a derelict space that was waiting to be converted into flats. A year later she set up Bold Tendencies, which has become an annual project encompassing sculpture and performing arts. Bold Tendencies takes place in the disused multi-storey car park which has Frank’s Bar on its roof, with its panoramic views of London’s sprawling vistas which are up there with the best the city has to offer.
Having spent five years in situ by the iconic Bussey Building, Hannah Barry moved to its current site in 2013. “To come and spend an afternoon in Peckham if you’ve never been here is very exciting,” says Barry, “to come and spend an afternoon after you’ve been here the first time and make your own route is still very exciting. And then, hopefully, you come a third time and bring others who you can introduce to the same great time you had…I think Peckham allows people to do that and that’s what’s special and unique about it”.
Just around the corner, down a winding lane that takes you past the Bussey Building – home to the CLF Art Cafe, two yoga businesses and a handful of artists studios – sits Bosse and Baum. Again, the only signage is a tiny bronze plaque. Bosse and Baum opened the doors on its new gallery space in October 2014 with Candida Powell-Williams enchanting solo exhibition Glissando as the inaugural show. Glissando filled the impressive ex-warehouse space with vibrant, playful sculptures, which conflate the mythologies of flying characters from Wonderwoman to Elimer, an 11th century monk who made himself wings, via the first dog into space. Powell-Williams carried it off with a childlike abandon which induced an infectious giddiness.
A hop, skip and jump round Copeland Road and you find yourself at Rod Barton, occupying the type of space at the foot of a new block of flats usually reserved for a mini supermarket. Its big shop windows make it both more conspicuous and inviting than the other galleries in the area. In September last year I had the pleasure of seeing Alex Ito’s Tales from a Sardine Run, a scathing critique of corporate aesthetics and the self-immolation by consumers in pursuit of falsely-constructed forms of beauty and success. Its centrepiece was an at once beguiling and hideously sanitised white plastic dolphin, with a piece of jewellery absurdly dangling from its rostrum.
Back towards the station on Blenheim Grove sits the Sunday Painter, an altogether more intimate space. It recently exhibited New York-based artist James Viscardi, which reflects the international outlook of many galleries in the area. Viscardi’s Whistle and Flute is a facetious commentary on how an artist’s life is increasingly scrutinised and used to inform opinions of their work. With grotesquely-oversized renditions of his own clothing hanging from frames as if crucified, Viscardi’s work has a pleasing immediacy.
I was in attendance for Arcadia Missa’s private view of Maja Cule’s Facing the Same Direction which drew a thronging arty crowd that spilled out onto the yard of the industrial estate which is home to the gallery. There was an electric atmosphere which made for a very sociable event. Farkas says Peckham offers collectors access to “emerging artists and their works, created from within a much bigger and engaged collective movement. Small galleries that are self-organised from the grassroots, often developed from long-term friendships with artists, and open to patronage and support from collectors that are looking for involvement with young scenes beyond just the acquisition of works. There is a lot of discourse for such a small number of spaces too – post-crisis new ways of living and thinking. Oh and also fun.” And that sums it up nicely. The scene has a very young and dynamic feel to it, the antithesis to the often stuffy and overbearing feel that characterises many of the more established galleries located more centrally.
Every one that I spoke to was keen to highlight what an incredible community there is in Peckham, not just within the arts but beyond that. Hannah Perry, a Royal Academy graduate working in installation, print and video together with 12 other artists leases and manages a three-story studio block. They rent out studio space to around 35 artists and musicians. This is just one example of the myriad creative spaces offering opportunities for collaboration, experimentation and growth. Perry described the artistic community in Peckham as “stronger than anywhere else I have experienced in London”.
However, as the vicious effects of gentrification have gathered pace in concert with (and in many ways because of) Peckham’s cultural renaissance, rents are rising to prohibitive levels. These things often come full circle, with the low rents that drove artists to the area gone, many will be looking for the next Peckham already. This has happened with countless areas in London, but it seems to have happened particularly quickly and starkly with Peckham. Every artist I spoke to cited rising rent as a major concern. Perry’s 35-artist studio space is sadly on borrowed time, with the lease coming to an end, the building will soon be converted into expensive new flats.
Similarly, local painter Christopher Green, co-founder of the Library of Independent Exchange, told me how the rent on his studio in the Bussey Building doubled overnight. “Peckham has become like all other areas in London, in the sense that rent prices are increasing and the local council and developers make every effort to capitalise on creative pursuits,” he tells me, “as a consequence the environment they create is no longer conducive to true ‘creativity’.” And herein lies the problem. For all the exciting developments in Peckham, soaring property prices are bringing in a different type of influx. Whereas the artists I spoke to said they made an effort to integrate themselves with the existing community in Peckham by supporting local businesses, the fear is that those with money moving into Peckham for its new-found trendy status are creating their own infrastructure which may be excluding existing residents, who are themselves being squeezed by rising rents.
Fortunately, spaces like Peckham Platform make a huge effort to engage with the existing community in Peckham through an extensive programme of outreach work and using artists who have social engagement at the core of their practice. Peckham Platform’s explicit commitment to community engagement was exemplified by their Peckham Peace Wall project launched in 2012; a permanent outdoor artwork comprised of digitally-reproduced post-it notes with positive messages about the area contributed by locals following the 2011 riots.
It seems vital that the artistic community in Peckham continues to reach out the wider community in this way so that the diversity of the area – so long one if it’s greatest strengths – continues to reflect and nourish the new offshoots which appear. Artists who have worked in the area for a number of years will also need support in the form of affordable creative spaces, or else the vibrancy and dynamism which has epitomized Peckham in recent years threatens to be swallowed up by the relentless appetite of gentrification.