HCZF MONTH! As part of this year’s Hackney Comic + Zine Fair a number of events both online and in-person have been commissioned to complement the HCZF digital fair. One of the most exciting of these projects is the ‘Ink Well’ exhibition in London’s Gillett Square with some of the best and brightest artists from the UK indie and small press scene coming together to create an “exquisite corpse”-style visual narrative. Nearly half the artists involved have been Broken Frontier ‘Six to Watch‘ creators. The full line-up consists of Peony Gent, Mike Harman, Ed Firth, Olivia Sualdea, Aleesha Nandhra, Havva Bird, Thunderchair, Laylah Amarchih, Korinna Mei Veropolou, Nic Mac, Shangomola Edunjobi, Mereida Fajardo and Natasha Natarajan. It runs until September 30th.
I spoke to ‘Ink Well’ organiser Nora Goldberg, my former partner-in-crime for many years as co-organiser of the Gosh! Comics and Broken Frontier Drink and Draw (below), about the intricacies of setting up the exhibition, its community aims, and the work of the incredibly talented artists involved…
ANDY OLIVER: I know how long and how hard you have been working on the Ink Well exhibition simply because I was one of those you asked to nominate an artist to take part at the beginning of the process. So, with that in mind, can you tell us about the early genesis of Ink Well? Where did the initial idea for the project come from, how did you bring the artists on board, and what were the aims of the initiative?
NORA GOLDBERG: There are a couple threads to this, so I will try to be succinct! In my own lockdown journey the support system that has come from Drink & Draw has been instrumental. For those who don’t know Andy and I spent years working on the Gosh! Comics & Broken Frontier monthly Drink & Draw, and through that we were able to build a beautiful little community. This includes individuals who I now count as my dearest friends. And Andy – you have been brilliant in keeping Drink & Draw going every other week through lockdown, and while it was hosted on Twitter many of us would be on Zoom for the duration. I felt so lucky to have this check-in with everyone, and I don’t know where I would have been without it. But I couldn’t help but think about the artists who hadn’t had the chance to build this type of support system pre-lockdown.
Now as Andy will remember a part of Drink & Draw [in its pre-lockdown pub days] we would have ‘After Hours Exquisite Corpses’. For us night owls we would stay until closing to create these wild collaborative pieces. And through this, there have been fantastic real-life collaborations. So how do young artists get this opportunity in the lockdown world?
Nora with HCZF Founder Joe Stone
This train of thought was then combined with my own passion for being an art-goer. I find such emotional relief being in art spaces. And with many traditional spaces being shut, this has created a lack of opportunities for many artists. In thinking about what art can be enjoyed safely in the Covid era and how to give artists a platform – I thought of the Frieze Sculpture Park as we can do that with comics too! The idea of it being outside is important because we all need art in our lives, so even if the traditional art spaces are shut I know that these works will still be accessible.
From all this came about the idea of an outdoor comics “exquisite corpse” exhibition – a bit of a mouthful! I then asked twelve of the original members of the Drink & Draw group to anonymously nominate an artist they felt represents the future of British comics. I was originally going to put the show on in my local park, but the logistics were pretty daunting, so while Joe Stone and I were discussing Hackney Comic + Zine Fair the idea came about of integrating the exhibition into the fair. I cannot thank him enough as it has really been a life-changing process.
2021 BF ‘Six to Watch’ artist Mereida with her ‘Ink Well’ piece
Then it took quite a few phone calls with Hackney Council to find a space, they put us in touch with Hackney Co-Operative Developments who are a pretty cool organisation in Dalston. They manage a group of buildings behind Dalston Junction station. They are currently building new affordable housing and retail spaces in Gillett Square and they have the typical unattractive hoardings over the construction. They’ve had a recent crime wave in the square, and were looking to be able to put something art-focused to help create positive engagement with the community. This is where we were able to come in to provide work that is engaging though temporary for the space. Once we got the okay from them and our funding partners then came the best part! Getting the artists on board! I already knew obviously who was nominated, and everyone was pretty much on-board from the get-go when I reached out to commission the works.
I can only hope there is a bit of long term life to this because the whole idea is if I can do this again this current group of artists can then nominate another group and so forth. We all need to pass on the totem, and hopefully expand the comics arena.
Sequential images by Korinna Mei Veropolou and Nic Mac
AO: What is the main theme of Ink Well in terms of its narrative structure and how does the Exquisite Corpse idea work in practice?
GOLDBERG: The idea of an Exquisite Corpse is normally that you’ve folded a piece of paper, and each artist draws a section of the Corpse and you end up with this cool Frankenstein-style drawing. I’ve also done it with writing where one person writes the first line of the story and then passes it on to the next person. So I combined the idea of the two. I had one artist, in this case, Peony Gent, starts off drawing to the prompt, and then once she was done I passed it along to the next artist to riff off of her work while still giving their own vision of the theme and so on! You then end up with a work, where each piece can be read on its own, but also all as a sequential narrative. It was funny having artists try and guess who was the previous artist, or try and get me to give them a sneak peek. It’s great seeing them all really work their own artistic muscles. I find that sometimes we are the most creative in limitations.
It did take a while to come up with a theme, but spending the last few months speaking with the Council and the Co-Op, the struggle of mental health in the community kept coming up in discussion. With a bit of back and forth with Joe, we came up with the prompt of ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing’ but looking at it from the viewpoint of an artist who already is quite isolated in their work. We asked them to think about the tools they used to get through the lockdown. Hence ‘Ink Well’, the well of wellness that as an artist they draw from through their literal and figurative tools. And then it is my hope that those in the community seeing the work can hopefully draw some inspiration or relief through the stories from the artists.
Aleesha Nandhra, another of the talented new wave of UK indie comics artists involved in ‘Ink Well’
AO: As mentioned, Ink Well is being held in Gillett Square. What was the thinking behind the decision to make it an outdoor exhibition? How important to its main objectives was it to make it as accessible to potentially entirely new audiences as possible?
GOLDBERG: The first thought is to make sure the art is available in a Covid-safe way. This is where we have seen a rise in digital galleries and NFTs, but that still has pretty extreme barriers. And as important as galleries and museums are to the arts, I also believe we need to take art out of those spaces to a certain degree. There is so much privilege in even being able to go to a museum. Perish the thought that you step into an art gallery in Mayfair. And I haven’t even gotten to the problem in making sure comics are taken seriously in the art world, which I have definitely met a lot of pushback on. No one can tell me that François Schuiten can’t exist in the same space as Turner.
The point is to make sure comics are being seen on par with any other art form, and that those of us who don’t have access to traditional art spaces know that art isn’t limited to a £20 exhibition. This was further cemented over the last few months in working with the businesses owners and residents of the square. There is the builder whose son is going to art school, but couldn’t find work in the field or the cafe manager whose young son comes with him at work and is obsessed with learning to draw manga. Art should never be a point of privilege because if nothing art should be democratising.
The first art in the ‘Ink Well’ sequence by Peony Gent
AO: The artists taking part all have very different styles and approaches to comics (and include six of our BF Six to Watch creators!). Who are some of the names involved and how have they adapted their styles to the Ink Well brief?
GOLDBERG: Everyone has been brilliant. And something I made very clear to them is that we want to see their voice. We are here to show that there is no formula to being an artist, as much as we owe to 2000 AD or Marvel that is such a small niche of comics. If you take a look at the transition between Korinna Mei to Nic Mac to Shangomola Edunjobi it’s pretty genius. Quite literally Nic is pulling the character Korinna drew into her panel and then Shangomola actually overlays his work onto Nic’s, so you still see her art bleeding through. I also really commend Peony Gent for having to start the corpse. It’s never easy to go first. We weren’t able to include it on the space but she based it on a quote from Jenna Newsom’s song Emily and John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. How mind-blowing is that?
But don’t make me pick favourites! None of the pieces could really exist without the other! Which is so brilliant when you think about it because we can’t exist without each other either.
AO: What have been some of the challenges in seeing Ink Well through to its conclusion in terms of the organisation and the administration involved?
GOLDBERG: Pretty much until the day we put the art up I wasn’t sure it was going to happen! I would definitely say leave room for things to go wrong because it will. I don’t know if I would try commissioning 13 pieces of art in 12 weeks again! Time management is everything. But everyone has been incredibly supportive, and understanding, and we have been really lucky with the funding for the festival and the exhibition.
AO: You put the exhibition up on September 4th. How did that first day go? What were the reactions both from members of the London comics community who visited on the day and, as importantly, locals and passers-by?
GOLDBERG: It was amazing. To have this thing that’s been in all of our heads the last few months being out in the real world is really thrilling. I loved getting to see the artists who worked on this piece unknowingly together get to meet for the first time, and see what they’ve inspired in each other. Many of us have not gone to a large comic gathering in over 18 months, so to have people come out for the first in that long because it was Covid-safe was pretty incredible.
A little anecdote was when artist, Shehzad Ahmed, and myself were putting up the art we seemed to have gathered a following of the kids who hang out in the square. They kept coming up to inspect are work and begging us to let them help. Even some critiqued that they could have done it better! This is the point though, we want to engage and inspire. Since the event, speaking to the business owners, there has been great feedback in the art getting new people to stop in the square and as well for the residents something positive they can engage with while using the space. I feel like you’ve got this as well Andy, a lot of adults who used to draw and never allowed themself to see themselves as artists as adults. So by being able to see SO MANY different styles, a few of them have been inspired to pick up that pen again.
Nora and Shehzad Ahmad putting up the exhibition earlier in the month
AO: Crucially, given its subject matter, there are a number of mental health charities partnering with you. How do you hope that collaboration will work in underlining their work in the wider community?
GOLDBERG: As I’ve mentioned previously there has been quite a few violent incidents in the area, specifically as lockdown was lifting. We are all struggling, and not all of us know how to manage that or what our tools are or think they can afford help. On each piece, we have highlighted a different Hackney-based charity that look at unemployment, addiction, abuse to homelessness, all offering free resources. We made sure their contact details are there, so my hope or plea is that if you are struggling that you know that these resources are out there for you and can help. It’s never too late.
I also want to give a big thank you to ‘Drunk & Drew’ you all know who you are and I could never have done this without all of you. As well to the Gillett Square community, thank you for welcoming me.
Photos courtesy of Nora Goldberg, Mereida Fajardo and Aleesha Nandhra
Interview by Andy Oliver