This post has been written by Iona Mandal (15), a talented young poet and writer who has taken part in many of our creative projects at The GAP. Here she reflects upon her experience of participating in one of our most recent projects and reviews the public exhibition currently on show (closing end of July).
ME, HERE, NOW Exhibition Review
by Iona Mandal, 10th July 2021
Though often the summer days are overcast and gloomy, The GAP has always acted as a warm and welcoming haven to the damp streets of Balsall Heath and as an outlet of creative liberation. And now more than ever before, with the new addition of the Me, Here, Now Photography Exhibition, created and curated by the ten young people of the area with artworks that have emerged in response to the question 'What does it mean to be me in these times and this place?'. Created during the coronavirus pandemic, the exhibition powerfully captures a very challenging moment in the young people's lives whilst also communicating strength, hope and joy in sharing photographic self-portraits. With COVID-secure measures in place (one-way system, only one group in the gallery at a time and more than 6 people booking in advance) to keep everyone in the community as safe as possible, one can turn up at the exhibition, any of these times. As both a participant of the workshops involved in its outcome and now a keen viewer of the exhibition itself, I am eager to present what is undoubtedly a hidden gem of the streets of Balsall Heath.
Spanning across weekly sessions between September 2020 to March 2021, the Me, Here, Now arts project was an intensely insightful and fresh exploration into our individual self-identities and how we could express this through the power of digital photography combined with art and creative self-expression. As a group of around eleven teenagers, we worked together in collaboration to create our final pieces, which were a product of the knowledge and skills we had acquired over the past few months. As explanatory by the title, we focused on this theme through the three key words Me, Here and Now, and each session explored a different aspect of this phrase, what it meant to us, how the three interacted with one another and finally, how we could showcase our creativity through it. For example, in the session on ‘Me’, we embarked on our journey of self- exploration through a variety of simple yet valuable exercises, ranging from something as simple as taking a selfie which we felt expressed a key part of our personality, to something more dynamic like re-enacting common situations through the perspective of a completely exaggerated version of ourselves. Exercises like these really helped to cement my understanding of myself and what it means to be who I am, since these activities involve asking ourselves some surprisingly difficult questions which we are not used to contemplating. As for other sessions, we did a variety of different activities, such as making mind maps and brainstorming on how different aspects of our environment have had a part to play in our self-identity, starting from where we live in Birmingham, to the country we are from, to more grave topics such as current world issues which have formed a foundation for how we see ourselves.
Furthermore, we were encouraged to think and reflect on specific moments in our lives in which we felt a sense of happiness and belonging, and then re-enact these using props. As for the more creative side, we personalised our own masks to convey something which we felt defined who we really are and of course, along the way, we were given small concertina books for recounting and reflecting upon each stage of our journey. I feel that the most valuable part of these sessions was hearing the stories of those around me, since we are often oblivious of just how diverse a background one can have. There were people around me who had moved countries at a young age and were still adjusting to the UK and even those who had never been back to their home country because of the war-ridden state it was in. I was incredibly enlightened by hearing the profound words of those my age, and even more interested to see how their life experiences would influence the artwork they created. During half term, we were lucky enough to participate in a day-long session in which we travelled across different areas in and around Balsall Heath, which people had their own personal connections with, took photographs of each other and were even given sessions discussing the more technical aspects of using a camera.
In terms of the physical gallery, I was pleasantly surprised to see everyone’s final pieces in person, especially as a few of the workshops had to be conducted online due to COVID, and hence, we were unable to share the collaborative creative process we had before. Though the online Zoom sessions were just as fun, it was a shame that we could not interact more in real life. However, visiting The GAP after so long made the viewing experience even more enjoyable! The exhibition was in a well-lit and vibrant space, made even more ambient by the general commotion of the cafe, and it was fantastic to see everyone’s artwork. What struck me most was the incredible diversity: everyone seemed to have such starkly different ideas and portrayals, from mixed media pieces to something more abstract. However, what they all had in common was that it was our own interpretation of a ‘self-portrait’, which we had developed in our own ways, whether that be a representation of our hobbies and interests or something much more personal. The small boxes of writing next to each piece of art written by each of the artists also helped me understand the thought behind each element of each self-portrait and it was great to hear the distinct ideas of young people in the area. Overall, my experience was incredibly captivating, but also unique and unlike anything I have witnessed before. Seeing my own art amongst people I had worked with for so long was a pleasure and felt unbelievably rewarding.