Can fresh Perspectives help a community tell its changing story?

How can a community tell its story? That’s the question Jonathan Hodge has been asking as he visited other places and communities to bring back ideas and challenges to loyalist communities in Northern Ireland.

Supported by a fellowship from the Social Change Initiative, he hosted a discussion in Shankill Road library as part of the Greater Shankill Winter Festival and launched his new Perspectives magazine which looks at identity, rights and the United Kingdom.

Multistory is a community arts project that has been embedded in the community around Sandwell and the Black Country for fifteen years. According to UK government indices of deprivation, Sandwell is one of the most deprived local authority areas in England, whether measured by income, or how it affects children and older people.

Becky Sexton spoke about the approach Multistory takes and the challenges it faces.

“We aim to tell stories through high quality art experiences in which local people recognise themselves.”

To get away from the typically black and white imagery of long-gone industrial smoke plumes, Multistory are building up a contemporary archive of colour photographs. With no traditional art gallery in the vicinity, their recent Blast! Festival mounted exhibitions in pubs, clubs, bus shelters, cafes, libraries, community spaces, and even the bustling indoor market.

“The benefit of working in one area [over a long period] is that we can listen and respond to needs and build up relationships” said Sexton. Embedded in the community they can react to what’s going on politically and socially.

The photography is an intentional first step, celebrating identity and a sense of home. Using international photographers along with local artists helps the work to travel beyond the local authority, bring the stories of Sandwell to far flung places. While the work is all shown locally – something not every artist is used to – many of the exhibitions are later remounted in galleries and festivals across the UK and Europe, opening up opportunities for the human subjects to travel and talk about their lives and experiences at events and conferences.

“We don’t shy away from difficult subjects,” she explained, with each work commissioned “for a particular place, people and need”. Her examples illustrated a range of ages and situations across the region, with recent projects including hospital patients and prisoners.

Images from The Caravan Gallery’s extra{ordinary} exhibition which celebrate social change across the UK in eye-catching and often humorous ways decorate the upstairs Shankill library walls until Saturday 23 November. Well worth calling in for a gander.

Sharan Dhaliwal spoke about her nearly accidental setting up of the Burnt Roti magazine. Born in London and describing herself as British-Indian, Dhaliwal decided to tackle the lack of South Asian representation in UK print media. With Asian wedding magazines the only cultural reference point in the newsagent shelves, she took matters into her own hands: “I wanted to tell my story and see it reflected”.

Bringing together voices of people with links to a huge geographic area, Burnt Roti talks about lifestyle, food and family, preserving individual tone of voice from contributors, and has expanded from print to an online presence and face-to-face events. It has opened doors and created waves she couldn’t have imagined.

Dhaliwal questioned why a huge queue had formed somewhat unexpectedly outside an exhibition she’d mounted, and was told “there’s nowhere else we can go for this experience”. “You don’t realise how much thirst there is for this,” Dwaliwal said, perhaps a warning for those gathered in the Shankill Road library of what they might be unleashing.

Both Sexton and Dhaliwal described projects that explored identity and Britishness, themes that are crucial to how loyalism understands itself, though they’re also concepts that change over time and can come under pressure.

Hodge’s new magazine features subjects that are pertinent to the loyalist community. It’s a mix of internal and external voices, explaining and challenging. The phrase ‘human rights’ is often seen as the preserve of nationalists and republicans. Amnesty International is not often seen as a friend of loyalism or unionism. But Patrick Corrigan writes in the inaugural edition about human rights, arguing that they can be “the Union’s best friend”.

Former PUP councillor Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston unpacks voter behaviour at recent elections, and rather than panicking about shifts in political power towards centrist parties, instead calls out deprivation and inequality as the enemies of the Union.

The first edition of the Perspectives magazine is illustrated with photographs The Caravan Gallery took during the Twelfth of July festivities in Woodvale in 2018.

Other articles look at the potential for direct rule (argued by Jeffrey Dudgeon), questioning the type of Tory rule that will follow Brexit (Steve Baker), a treatise on William Walker (Philip Orr), and What it means to be British today (Sharan Dhaliwal).

One magazine won’t turn around the image of loyalism. No more than a photographic project in Sandwell could tackle deprivation, or copies of Burnt Roti could fix South Asian representation. But by encouraging self-reflection and letting light shine on positive developments, maybe a community can begin to tell stories that will boost their reputation and build their confidence to progress the issues in the homes, schools, hospitals and streets around them.

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