It’s often said that the visual arts are a good way to communicate what cannot easily be described in words. And those exhibitions that have survived the uncertainty of programming during the pandemic have boosted awareness of the joys that the visual arts and collective expression can provide.
Since the arrival of Sally Shaw as its director in 2015, Firstsite in Colchester has successfully renewed its contact with the local community. The venue now spends more time on broader engagement and social inclusion, either through turning the gallery into a canteen serving meals to children in the school holidays or committing to developing a family audience, which is never easy for contemporary art venues.
Firstsite has even asked families to co-curate exhibitions, which should change how audiences engage with the venue. Shaw is passionate about putting the community – not the art – at the heart of Firstsite, but in this exhibition the gallery has managed to achieve both.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit families hard with parents wondering how on earth to keep their children occupied. In April 2020, Noah Jones aka @background_bob, and his dad Nathan, from Dedham, Essex, decided to do some painting, not expecting their activity would become a global art collaboration.
Noah, who has cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus and epilepsy, which involved a lot of time in hospital during his early years, painted on cardboard, creating wonderfully expressive and abstract paintings when his father, Nathan, had an inspired idea.
Noah and Nathan are big street art fans and so posted on Instagram, using Noah’s artist name @background_bob, with an image of the work they had done to ask if anyone wanted to collaborate. They wanted artists to finish the pictures Noah had started.
The response was far bigger than they anticipated. One post on social media saw more than 250 artists responding from all over the world including Trust.iCON, Pez, Anna Schellberg, Carne Griffiths and Silent Bill.
The original plan was to invite a few street artists that Nathan knew, but all kinds of people stepped forward leaving the family overwhelmed. When artists such as @MyDogSighs promoted the idea on his own social media pages the whole thing began to gather momentum and the gallery shows just how generous participants from all over the world have been.
Artists from the UK, Colombia, Italy, Spain, France, Sweden, Germany, the US and Australia have all taken part in the project and the gallery walls demonstrate what a powerful tool art can be in a bright and visually uplifting display where representations of the Mona Lisa, Morecambe and Wise, Pinocchio and Marilyn Monroe share space with dynamic and joyful representations of Noah himself, most notably as the superhero Superman.
Such positive representations of disabled people are all too rare. This exhibition’s positive impact is telling and it highlights what still needs to be done to ensure the equal treatment and portrayal of disabled people at arts venues. Firstsite’s commitment to greater local inclusivity and engaging marginalised individuals is to be applauded and represents a wonderful example of promoting artistic and social interaction for those that have been isolated, regardless of the current pandemic.
The simple idea of involving Noah’s Background Bob art project with others has evolved into something very special. The exhibition hasn’t just helped Noah, but many of the participating artists, too. The postponement and cancellation of many exhibitions has left many artists concerned about their future and this project has clearly helped them, as evidenced in the display of letters they have sent thanking Noah for the opportunity to collaborate and how it had helped them start painting again during these anxious times.
More often than not, it is individual artists that are celebrated, rarely the multitude of people involved in creating works. Art history shows that innovation comes from creativity that is encouraged when people team up – from the joint artistry of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who elevated underground street art to the New York gallery scene, to the performance artists Marina Abramovi´ c and her long-time partner Ulay with their ground-breaking feats presented as art. In the case of Background Bob, 250 creative minds can often be better than one.
Sense of purpose
Art, and community art projects in particular, not only improve our physical and mental health, but can empower communities with a sense of purpose. “Change starts small” states one of the works by artist duo Quiet British Accent. The creativity that has come with producing and looking at art in this exhibition can, momentarily, assure us there are better days ahead.
An online auction of all the artwork took place on eBay in January, just before the exhibition ended. And there is a book, Background Bob and His Amazing Friends, which brings together all the work. Thanks to the kindness of the artists, all the profits from the book go to the Children’s Department at Colchester Hospital.
James Steward is the manager of Ipswich Museum, Suffolk, run by Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service