An art gallery in one of the richest boroughs in London has teamed up with one of the UK capital’s most deprived areas to produce an insightful and poignant exhibition that explores the state of social care.
Over the past three years, four award-winning British artists embedded themselves within core community settings in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, producing collaborative commissions that are currently on display at the Serpentine North gallery in Kensington.
The Radio Ballads exhibition showcases a series of films weaving song, music and performances with the personal stories of people from all sides of the community’s social care system.
Working with social workers, carers, organisers and communities, the exhibition builds on the Serpentine’s continuing “critical investigation of the role of artists in politics and civic life”.
As Radio Ballads’ co-curator Amal Khalaf tells The National, she has a deep interest in the way that people experience discrimination and privilege depending on their social and political identities. The daughter of a Singaporean mother and Bahraini father, her background gave rise to a perception of being different, or "othering", and partly explains the interest in telling stories with an issue as a backdrop.
She strongly believes anything is possible, an attitude that the artist says was instilled by her parents.
Above all, she feels that the many fields of practice within the art world can answer the growing calls for societal change by grasping the opportunity presented by "an overwhelming confluence of crises" to reimagine and practise different ways of relating and being together.
“As an art curator, I’m interested in creating opportunities to be part of political processes and to intervene in a world that needs attention,” Khalaf says.
The project is a part of the borough's New Town Culture programme, which explores how artistic processes can reframe the work of social care and how embedding artists in local authority services can support systemic change.
Built over several years and 325 workshops, Radio Ballads is a culmination of the 65 projects Khalaf has done to date, including her first foray into this “experimental space” with her On the Edgware Road exhibition in 2012.
Looking at “what it would mean [for art] if we built alliances with people in certain areas”, Khalaf says, the Edgware Road project linked artists with people living and working in the London neighbourhood over three years. It culminated in an exhibition of installations, films and performances.
Taking its name from a revolutionary series of eight radio plays that were broadcast on the BBC from 1957 to 1964, Radio Ballads draws on that original process. It explores contemporary issues such as the “privatisation of care homes, or the closure of youth centres and artistic spaces”.
“The original Radio Ballads looked at unseen labour and this version looks at carers who are often the unseen people who are trying keep many of us afloat despite years of government austerity measures,” Khalaf says.
Since 2010, English councils have lost more than 40 per cent of their funding from central government. After education, the second biggest share of council spending goes on adult social care.
“We worked with people who are supporting each other when they can’t access services because that is the reality now that, for various reasons, Covid included, our carers are in crisis.”
Developed and sustained throughout a period of several global crises “with the compounding issues of austerity, systemic racism, ableism and the pandemic”, curators say the works of art shed light on the many ways in which those who do the work of care are often “unsupported and devalued”.
“We’re telling stories in a way that journalists, policymakers and academics can’t,” Khalaf says of the myriad complex issues involving trauma, accountability and “crisis in care” that are explored in the bodies of work.
In Yes, I Hear You, created by the winner of the Venice Biennale's top Golden Lion prize this year, British artist and academic Sonia Boyce traces the first-hand experiences of domestic abuse in a four-channel video installation.
Accompanied by eight digital prints and wallpaper, Yes, I Hear You is the culmination of two years of research involving interviews, workshops, reviews, and performative sessions with people who identify as survivors of domestic abuse.
The borough has the highest reported rates of domestic abuse in the UK.
Boyce, who in 2022 was the first black woman to be selected to represent the UK at the 59th Venice Biennale, emphasises the impact of speaking out. She asks viewers “to listen deeply and become witnesses” to a violent problem that is often shrouded in shame and secrecy.
Artist and composer Rory Pilgrim’s Rafts is the second chapter in a body of performance, film and sonic work exploring how the climate crisis relates to support structures in our everyday lives.
Produced in the middle of the global pandemic, Pilgrim’s work looks at “how methodologies like mental health groups and writing collective poetry can help you in times of grief and difficulty”, Khalaf says.
While Turner prize winner Helen Cammock’s Bass Notes and SiteLines explores the relationship between resistance and resilience, asking how we use our bodies and voices to articulate what we feel, it is Ilona Sagar’s The Body Blow that explores one of the borough's worst afflictions.
Situated in one of London’s heavily industrialised areas, the borough has the highest level of asbestos-related cancers and mesothelioma in the UK capital.
Sagar’s two-channel film project was developed through long-term research and collaboration with people with experience of these diseases, including social workers, end-of-life carers, asbestos removal experts, campaigners, and medical and legal professionals.
It is the only one of the four works of the exhibition’s art to take its name from the original Radio Ballads, which focused on an absence of work by revealing the experiences of people paralysed by polio.
Similar to the Serpentine’s current contemporary adaptation, the original Radio Ballads series focused on workers’ experiences at a time when working-class voices were rarely heard on the radio.
Those once-absent voices may be far more prevalent on broadcast platforms today, but Khalaf says the arts world remains out of reach for many from that social strata. Barking and Dagenham has the lowest rate of cultural engagement in London.
The powerful impact of the productions attracted praise for Khalaf, who received a tribute from her country's ambassador to the UK, Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, the envoy of Bahrain.
“Amal has been a fierce champion for the power of art in driving positive change through her involvement in art projects with institutions in her home country, Bahrain, and the wider Gulf and the UK," he told The National. "We stand supportive of Bahraini creatives who connect societies and nations through their artistic vision by telling untold stories and creating space for deeper understanding.”
At a time of social division in the UK, Khalaf hopes for wider social awareness in London. “Museums can be very elitist — even if they’re free — and are mainly attractive to the upper and middle classes,” she says. Khalaf hopes Radio Ballads can serve as a blueprint for how to create art that speaks for other people.
“The project is much more than what ends up in the exhibition,” says Khalaf, who is now teaching a course on social therapeutic community studies at Goldsmiths University. She wants to share the practices and impact of exchanges between artists and social workers.
“How do we listen and how do we hold each other? What systems and structures, formal or informal, support us? Radio Ballads brings together lots of learning from the last decade of Serpentine’s civic projects, that explore how artists can embed more deeply into civic life through multiyear residencies in movement spaces, community settings and civic agencies.”