Eliel Jones, a curator, writer and organiser based in London, has been appointed as the Curator of the Brent Biennial 2022 and has developed the vision and framework for In the House of my Love. He is also heading up a curatorial committee of invited artists: former Brent Biennial alumni Abbas Zahedi and Adam Farah; and London-based artist, writer and researcher Jamila Prowse.
“Thinking meaningfully about what a biennial could be when run with a hyperlocal focus as its priority, we have been reflecting on what it means to be speaking to and from Brent first, and then reaching out to others, as different gestures imbued with an equally generous spirit. We’re asking, what would a biennial look like if we were to really implement a reorientation towards the local as a different model for engagement, one that doesn’t fall into the pitfalls of nationalist or insular agendas?” —Eliel Jones, ArtReview
Ahead of the opening of the second edition of the Brent Biennial, the curatorial team got together to answer the question: What does a Biennial mean in Brent?
Abbas Zahedi: For me the reason the Brent Biennial is interesting is not only because it’s in Brent itself, but because it’s testing and developing the idea that a biennial doesn’t necessitate defined locations for showing art. Everything is a little more diffused in the borough—which means the Biennial has to address so many different localities and agendas at once. So all of the navigation and conversations and even the difficulties that might arise in trying to make things happen—all of that is really interesting to me and really generative. I think in the more established biennial models these things are presented or experienced as being more straightforward—the questions have more to do with asking: Who’s showing? What are they showing? Where are they showing it? Whereas in this case, it’s about asking: How are we showing? How are we actually going to do this? And I think that whenever I find myself asking that I feel something interesting is happening, because we don’t know the answers, so it feels much more like an ongoing, research-based process.
Eliel Jones: Absolutely. What I felt really inspired about the Brent Biennial is the fact that it started as an alternative to the usual way of doing things. The Biennial originally came out of the Brent 2020 Borough of Culture award, which is a model that tends to pour in a huge amount of investment in a single year, with very little that continues or develops over time. Whereas in Brent the pandemic meant that rather than just planning an exhibition, there was a clear sense that the programme would have to find a way of surviving over time—that there would be a provision beyond just that one year of activity. That to me feels quite exciting for Brent and a good reason to have a biennial here.
Abbas: I think we’re using the term “biennial” for what is in essence a public art programme in a borough as a way of legitimising it, because we know it fits that very old and enduring art industry model. What’s actually going on is much harder to define and make sense of, and trying to think of a singular public or community in Brent just doesn’t make sense, because there are so many different things happening here. So instead the idea is to create this open platform where you can plug in all these other discourses and lived experiences that need visibility within the arts—but more as a way to develop a fertile ground in which to plant these seeds, and see how they can grow.
Adam Farah: I think this also speaks to the weird politics about different localities in the city of London, and how the art world relates to them. It’s funny because my art practice, which mainly exists in galleries, wouldn’t be there without Brent—it wouldn’t exist without me having grown up here. So as someone who engages with the contemporary art world, but who grew up around here, and still lives on a council estate nowhere near central London, the way that people completely dismiss other areas of the city can be so intensely jarring. These things are really complex, and I think we are hopefully giving room for the artists to weave in that complexity and the messiness of that process.
Jamila Prowse: Exactly. So often you’re just figuring out how to exist in spaces that ask you to be a certain way, or changing your voice and code switching. I’m aware that I rely on passing a lot in terms of the way I move through the spaces we share. And I think this has been central to our conversations with artists during the commissioning process; talking through how many of them had links back to Brent, and allowing them to drop back into that. It’s been about allowing space for people to think about the way these streets have informed who they are, and how this finds form in their practice—to lean into that, instead of asking themselves: how do I pass or fit into an institution?
Abbas: I think there’s often a sense that if there’s public art in place, and if you just went along to visit it, then you could learn and understand. And it’s just not that simple—there needs to be some kind of safe passage into those conversations. Art can actually be very violent, it can be quite a traumatising process when it makes someone aware that not only do they have to change their life if they want to pursue that work, but that also they’re stuck in a position where it’s actually very difficult for them to do so. That’s going to be a very hard realisation to deal with, and there isn’t enough of a support structure for that. I think that in the process of programming the Biennial we’ve been trying to figure out how to do this in a way that does actually consider the social impact of art—that actually, it’s not just an inherently good or celebratory thing, it also opens up space for lots of very difficult experiences and necessary conversations.
Jamila: I also think that when you make personal work it’s like you are using your body as a testing site, or a ground for all of those things to be explored. And then yourr work might be situated in an institution enabling them to present themselves as progressive, and to maybe disguise the more nefarious internal structures that are in place. This is why the sense of continuity is so important. To me the biennial model has always seemed like something that is inherently shaped by exclusion and inclusion. And this in turn speaks of a sense of everything being temporary, and the inherent competition often shaping a biennial in terms of budgets or awards. Whereas for the Brent Biennial this year, everyone’s had the same budget across all forms of artist commissions, whether community focused or not, and some of those community-focused commissions aren’t necessarily visible immediately, and will be ongoing. So there’s already a different structure in place.
Eliel: I think one really important thing within what you said there Jamila is that it’s almost about refusing the model in which the biennial is the only thing that happens within the process of working on this project overall. We’ve had to think carefully about what can actually continue beyond these ten weeks, and think about how we can invite people into this work with enough generosity to allow for their experience to be meaningful in the longer term, and for relationships to be established in the process. That is certainly the hope—that we will have set up a structure that can somehow refuse the model of putting all the resources in one place at one time, and instead form something that’s both embedded and that has a much wider international resonance.
Adam: For me the hope is that going forward, more complex narratives and discourse can find presence and visibility by emerging within the context in which they exist. I think the Biennial’s focus on the ideas of love and of queer experience being much more expanded fields of expression has introduced a particularly generative kind of complexity. My hope is that this will expand new ways of working and understanding, something more like an ecosystem that exists within and around people’s lives, that can give space to some of those ways of being.
Eliel: Exactly. I guess my hope—and not just with the artist projects and the commissions, but also just generally with the various questions that we’re putting forward with the Biennial—is that somehow they’re received as an offering of sorts to enter into. Brent isn’t a singular community, it’s an amalgamation formed of lots of different communities, so what happens when something opens up possibilities for some form of connection or solidarity, whilst respecting those differences. I think it’s a big hope and it might not happen immediately, but I really hope that happens over time.
Abbas: From one iteration to the next it’s just about setting a course and a direction. I think that gives me hope as well—that you’ve set something in place that can offer the next person in your role, Eliel, a lot of freedom in terms of how to approach this. And as long as that continues, I think it can be a fruitful process.
Eliel Jones is a curator, writer and organiser based in London, and he has been appointed Curator of the Brent Biennial 2022. Jones’ research interests and methodologies stem from intersectional approaches to queer and feminist discourse and are guided by his involvement in direct community action and solidarity, such as through his organising work with Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants. Recent projects include: Queer Correspondence, a worldwide mail-art initiative; Cellular, Cell Project Space, London; Do You Host?, Ujazdowski Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw; Acts of Translation, Mohammed and Mahera Abu Ghazaleh Foundation, Amman, Jordan; and Experiments on Public Space, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas. He has previously held curatorial positions at organisations including Cell Project Space and Chisenhale Gallery (both in London), where he has worked towards realising commissions of new work by emerging artists, including Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, Maeve Brennan, Luke Willis Thompson, Hannah Black, Lydia Ourahmane, Paul Maheke, Krzysztof Bagiński, Carlos Maria Romero (AKA Atabey Mamasita) and Joseph Funnell, amongst others. Jones has written over a hundred pieces of criticism on contemporary art and performance for various international platforms and publications, including Artforum, Frieze, The Guardian, Flash Art, Mousse, Spike Art Quarterly, X-TRA and MAP, and is a visiting lecturer in Fine Art and Curating courses in the UK.
Adam Farah is an artist, composer and sauce-maker who was born n‘ raised in London. They are a Capricorn Sun, Leo Moon and Cancer Rising. They also practice under/within the name free.yard—a project set up to engage with and merge curatorial, research, artistic and equitable communal practices; with a focus on the ever expansive and nuanced creative endeavours/ potentials that emerge from endz. free.yard casts a side-eye onto the oppressive and supremacist structures upheld within the complacent and performative liberal bubbles of the artworld/s, and in the long term desires to create collaborative moments for artists to connect, manifest and exhale under such weight.
Jamila Prowse is an artist, writer and researcher who works across moving image and textiles to consider methodologies for visualising mixed race identity and the lived experience of disability. She is drawn to stitch making and patchwork as a tactile form of processing complex family histories and mapping disability journeys, and moving image as a site of self-archiving and autoethnography. Most recently, Jamila made the first iteration of a series of three films, An Echo For My Father. She was in a group exhibition at Hordaland Kunstsenter, Norway (October 2021) and was studio residency artist at Gasworks (JanuaryApril 2021). Jamila is a columnist for Frieze and British Journal of Photography. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Frieze, Elephant, Dazed, GRAIN, Art Work Magazine and Photoworks. She is an Associate Lecturer at University Arts London.
Abbas Zahedi’s interdisciplinary practice blends contemporary philosophy, poetics, and social dynamics with sound, sculpture, and other performative media. With an emphasis on how personal and collective histories interweave, Zahedi makes connections whenever possible with those around, in proximity to, or involved with the particular situations upon which he focuses. Through a non-approximate approach, one foregrounding the multiple specificities of a cite/ site and those beyond sight, Zahedi invites others into an ongoing conversation. It is through careful gestures that Zahedi’s practice is enunciated.