Spring 2010

Changing the Pictures

What’s left of London’s political murals

Owen Hatherley

Jane Gifford, Sergio Navarro, Nick Cuttermole, and Rosie Skaife D’Ingerthorpe, Changing the Picture (detail), 1985. Photos Nina Power.

London is a mercantile city, a colonial city, and a place whose radical history is easily suppressed. You can walk past a particular object a thousand times without really noticing just how strange and jarring it actually is, how uneasily it sits with the desperately accumulating city all around. Not far from where I live in southeast London is a painting on the wall of a public housing complex built between the wars. It’s somewhat faded, and placed behind a school playground just by the traffic-and-Tex-Mex-emporia-clogged UNESCO World Heritage Site that is “Maritime Greenwich.” The mural has little to do with the area, and its glorious imperial past. Rather, we see an insurgent crowd, the word Co-Operativa, some Mesoamerican characters, and, about to be crushed under a gigantic roll of canvas, oil refineries and sundry reactionaries. In the corner is the name “EL SALVADOR.” This is Changing the Picture, a mural by Jane Gifford, Sergio Navarro, Nick Cuttermole, and Rosie Skaife D’Ingerthorpe. Painted in 1985, it was in celebration of the Salvadorian insurgents who were at that point being fought by a CIA-funded military government. The picture, its colors weathered to dun blues and browns, with tenants’ satellite dishes protruding at the corners, places itself squarely in the tradition of the Mexican muralists—Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros. Heroic workers and peasants, their bodies distorted but never abstracted, occupy an unreal but easily understandable space, heavily symbolic but not esoteric. But what on earth is this mural doing here? Public art is supposed to be either sententiously mysterious (there’s a Gormley half-a-mile away) or a grinningly optimistic symbol of “regeneration”—but not didactic, not concerned with complex political struggles in far-away countries.

Changing the Picture was one of several large-scale murals created in the late 1970s and especially in the early to mid-1980s in the British capital. It was produced partly under the auspices and with the funding of the local authorities characterized by the tabloids of the time as the “loony left,” most of all the Greater London Council (GLC), which for a few years in the 1980s became such a threat to the Conservative government of the United Kingdom that London became the only major world capital without its own governing body. Said tabloids were often keen to point out the alleged profligacy of these councils, which doled out taxpayers’ money to various political and cultural projects. Yet this GLC, unlike its precursor the London County Council, did not (for financial and political reasons) leave a legacy of great public buildings, or of social housing estates. Its presence can be seen in these murals more than anywhere else—their naiveté, earnestness, daring, and enthusiasm speak for the politics of the time. Although some of these, such as the “GLC Peace Murals,” were directly commissioned, more of them came from groups like the Greenwich Mural Workshop, an influential (and still extant) group that left this borough with one of the most impressive, if most poorly treated, legacies of this all-but-forgotten public art.

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