“Walter’s been!”: Britain’s first street artist?

Before Phlegm… before Banksy… there was….

WALTER!!

Walter Kershaw, to give him his full, zippy ‘handle’.
(What is it about the name ‘Walter’?
Ancient British readers may, like me, picture the dithering, imbecilic character in that ‘much-missed’ (i.e. egregious) archaic northern sitcom Nearest and Dearestin which most of the dialogue centred around concern for the functioning of said Walter’s dodgy bladder, hence lots of ” ‘Ave yer been, Walter?”, ” ‘As ‘e been?”
So far, so ‘street’.
But I digress.)

Kershaw (K-Walt? Waltsy? Wal-Ee Bah Gum?) was born in 1940 in Rochdale, one of the many once-great cotton and wool mill towns of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire which fuelled Imperial prosperity. To house the mill-workers, row upon row of back-to-back terraced houses were built, as close to the mills as possible; I myself (in Yorkshirese, ‘me’sen’) was born in just such a house:

“Everything was so grim and black and white in those days…”

Indeed it was, Walter.
Mucky, filthy from the continuous belch of smoke and soot. That’s not to say outside walls were left entirely to their own devices:

Bile Beans??
Apparently, some heinous quack laxative. (Sorry. Again already with the ‘internal plumbing'; but the importance of being ‘regular’ was something of an obsession in those days. Trust me.)

“… so I asked this chap if I could paint some big flowers on his wall…”

BIG flowers.
Do not underestimate the radical nature of this work. Hardly ‘political’ on the scale of, say, the Northern Ireland murals, it caused no end of fuss and mithering amongst the petty Jobsworths at the Town Hall; furthermore, they’re not just ‘flowers’, they’re pansies, ‘pansy’, in those halcyon, taste-free days of the mid-70s when these works were created, being the demotic for what the papers liked to refer to as ‘a confirmed bachelor’.
Go Walter!

The following is perhaps my favourite.
The plan was to paint Elvis –  you know, an actual icon - but someone had forgotten to bring the picture to paint from, or something, so they had to make do with Alvin Stardust. Alvin bloody Stardust!! A leather-clad, be-gloved and be-quiffed, slightly-too-old-looking popster, who pointed suggestively at the camera while intoning such deathless classics as My Coo Ca Choo:

(Please, watch this video: a master-class in half-assed miming and audience indifference.)
Hilarious.
But you know what? The People LOVED Kershaw’s works, (the Alvin not so much, maybe; word is, he felt obliged to ‘leg it sharpish’ on completion), not least the rather marvellous ‘inside-out’ house:

Kershaw became quite famous, got Big in Brazil, won prestigious public commissions (Trafford Park), and continues as a practising artist to this day. (You can read his Wiki bio here, and visit his website here.)

But his later successes don’t interest me half as much as these earlier efforts with their “shock value of… technicolour guerilla work…” (Bob Stanley, in a Guardian article on Kershaw. Well worth a read.)
Aren’t they what street art is all about?
To be democratic, and to not give a flying feck about ‘officialdom’?
To make something extraordinary out of the horribly mundane?
To make people sit up and/or smile? Pay attention?
To actually, literally, change our world, if only for a passing moment?

These paintings – and, with their traditional drawing and use of perspective, they are paintings, not ‘graffiti’, Mr Stanley – are long gone, what with the decline of the textiles industry and the demolition and clearance of swathes of ‘industrial’ slum housing.
That’s the other thing about street art: it’s essentially ephemeral.
All the more reason, then, to treasure it and its makers while we can.
Here’s to you, Walter Kershaw.
You rock.

“Performance Obscura”: Athi-Patra Ruga, artist

I often bemoan the fatuousness of ‘western’ contemporary art: the money-grabbing, witless monster that is the Hirst/Gagosian axis of evil; the whining solipsism of would-be abstractionists and expressionists; the inane banality of so much ‘concept’.
You hear it all the time on social media: ‘Art changes the world’.
Does it?
Does yours?
We live in ‘interesting times’, yet so few artists seem to me willing to engage with them, take them on.

So coming across Athi-Patra Ruga via Twitter on http://skattiewhatareyouwearing.blogspot.co.uk/ was refreshing and re-affirming: radical; democratic; challenging; affective; he’s all these things.
But above all, he’s brave.

The following is a review of his performance, The Future White Women of Azania (The Prequel), at The National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, South Africa; beautifully written by Charl Blignaut, appearing in City Press, Johannesburg, July 6.
(I would have just reblogged Skattie, but if there’s a way to do it I ain’t yet figured it out. I’m thick like that.)

“Testing the limits of liberty

At 10 o’clock this morning an extraordinary creature emerges on the street in Grahamstown. She wears pink tights and red shoes with impossibly high heels. She has on a dramatic frock of balloons covering her head and body.

With shaky steps and an ominous squeaking sound of rubber-on-rubber, she feels her way down the road. Onlookers frown, puzzled. “This is art?” asks a man with disdain. Then, spontaneously, a balloon bursts, bleeding red paint into the road – and the man jumps backwards, alarmed. Hearts are racing.

The monster woman is South African performance artist Athi-Patra Ruga, well-known for his radically fashioned, highly conceptual characters that materialise in public as society’s worst nightmares.

The creature’s route was to be tracked by the camera obscura in the Observatory Museum by fellow-artist Mikhael Subotzky.
Eight privileged spectators would watch the performance from there. I decided, however, to stick with Ruga. A gasp goes up as he stumbles from a kerb and is almost taken out by a taxi. He soldiers on.

In the tradition of Steven Cohen, danger, endurance and the threat of arrest are what define the pedigree of this kind of guerilla public intervention.

Into the informal trading spaces the creature struts, finally taking time to stop and wave at the museum’s camera.Young members of the public start to engage.
Children gleefully gather dropped balloons and play with them. Young men cockily film her with their phone cameras. She pulls out binoculars and returns their scrutiny. They back off, laughing.

Theorists like to discuss Ruga’s role as a radical gay monster in terms of “the gaze of the other” and that sort of thing. “Are they talking to me with this art-world-convoluted-blah-blah? It is an exclusionist, elitist language!” he has told me. Similarly, the gallery with its white walls is, to him, a Western capitalist structure.

African art happens in the street. It is Ruga’s gallery.

He has been known to wear a black bodysuit covered in charcoal and then run inside and throw himself at gallery walls, leaving a stain behind as art.

Into the township the mythic scapegoat labours with staggering elegance, street music versioning a score. As bursting balloons infect the dusty street next to an infected river, tears start to roll down his cheeks.

Raised in an Eastern Cape township and severely bullied for being gay, I am guessing that the tears are of emotion as he reclaims his dignity and his public space – as much as they are about his physical pain.
Back in town, he approaches the angel statue on High Street – “a memorial to the brave men of Albany who died for the empire during the Anglo Boer War”.

Rubbing himself against it, he bursts his final balloons, revealing his peroxide blonde hair and bodysuit and spraying the statue with colour.
People stare. Cars stop. Is this person allowed to do these things?
Patra’s answer would be that he is questioning the democracy of public space.
If he may not be here, then what about lesbians and drag queens, street children, migrant labourers and African immigrants?

The single most heart-stoppingly meaningful and dangerous piece of work at the festival this year, Performance Obscura succeeded on many levels. The most powerful, for me, was its testing of the limits of our hard-won liberty.”

Wonderful stuff.
More, please.

_________________________________________________

All photographs courtesy of skattiewhatareyouwearing and Athi-Patra Ruga.
Thanks to Belinda Blignaut for sharing.

More on Athi-Patra here:
http://athipatraruga.blogspot.co.uk/
http://www.whatiftheworld.com/featured-artists/athi-patra-ruga/
http://www.youngblackman69.com/ruga-02.php