Gallery in South Norwood offers a bit of Brazil in batik

On a rainy night in Croydon, KEN TOWL heads off to Portland Road for a feel of Latin American sunshine

At the weekend I was taking brunch with members of the self-titled FILTH – Failed In London – Try Hastings – crew and was a little disappointed when one of them commiserated with me for the mere fact of coming from Croydon.

To be fair to the seaside literati, the rest leapt to Croydon’s defence, explaining to this hapless person (who was someone in the arts) that it is fast becoming a hub of culture and creativity, the new Shoreditch, if you will. And the Fairfield Halls at least look like the South Bank, even if they are considerably smaller.

Back home on a dark and damp Tuesday evening, I decided to test this out for myself by taking the 312 from Addiscombe to Portland Road in South Norwood.

At No10, the Elizabeth James Gallery was holding a private view of Urban Environments, a solo exhibition by the Brazilian artist, Ana Oliver. I got chatting to the artist. This was easy, since I was the first visitor to arrive brandishing my Eventbrite printed ticket and gratefully accepting a glass of Chardonnay. As more visitors trickled in, I asked Ana what she would like to tell the readers of Inside Croydon about the textile pieces decorating the walls.

She pointed out the layering effect, the batik (wax and dye on cloth) combined with graffiti paint and stamped text from websites and newspapers (I recognised The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and The Onion) and repeated printed motifs, mostly musical, designed to evoke the layering of diverse cultures on Brazil, the indigenous, the Afro-Brazilian, the Portuguese and, of course, the ever-present culture of the United States.

When she refers to Le Monde, she describes it as “Französisch” and it feels as if, only two days into her visit to Britain, Ana is mixing English and German when she speaks, a living example of her own technique.

The art itself demands attention and seems full of messages and questions (such as “Why is art so important?”, “Art is power” and “Holy Shit, Man Walks On The Moon”).

The images on the walls are complemented by a looping soundtrack of percussion-heavy Brazilian music, shifting oozily from ambient to acoustic in smooth South American style. The cultural references are almost subliminal, colours and shapes evoking hotter climes, instruments suggesting music. The word Sinatra hanging there on its own. The singer? The name of a club in downtown Rio? If you had a club, you would want to call it Sinatra, wouldn’t you?

And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “What would Bolsonaro make of this?”

It felt like a good idea at the time.

Bolsonaro is the fairly recently installed president of Brazil. He is not exactly big on multiculturalism.

Ana’s answer, a paragon of diplomacy and discretion, was exactly what I deserved. I should have taken in the small print at the bottom of the invitation. The exhibition is sponsored by the Fundo de Apoio a Cultura, or cultural aid fund and the Secretaria de Cultura e Economia Criativa.

Next time I’ll let the art speak – as this art so eloquently and multilingually did – for itself.

The gallery is open from 10am until 5pm Monday to Saturday (4.30pm on Wednesdays) and Urban Environments will be there until December 9.

If you happen to be in the South Norwood area, go and have a look and allow yourself to be entranced by the sights and sounds of Brazil and humanity, as I was.

My thanks to the Elizabeth James Gallery for not playing it safe and for daring to bring a bit of sunshine to a rainy night in Croydon.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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