Artists-in-Residence: An Interview with Pauline Bailey
Pauline Bailey is one of this year’s artists-in-residence at Bruntwood Works’ Cornwall Buildings in Birmingham. Established in partnership with Grand Union, the residency offers free creative space to local artists for a year, providing a platform for the amazing and diverse artistic talent which distinguishes Birmingham on a global stage.
As a visual artist and curator, Pauline herself has led numerous art projects centered around engagement, equality and diversity. She is one of the core members of the Black Arts Forum and Handsworth Creative based in Birmingham and also co-founder of the Daughters of Africa Foundation in the Gambia. She has curated and exhibited work both nationally and internationally and produced work in site-specific installations, and through a range of other media, including textiles, photography and video.
Pauline's individual art practice is generally informed by the multiple layers of diverse cultures and heritage of the African diaspora. Here, we talk to her about being Black and British, her plans for the residency, her thoughts on creativity and culture, and her experiences working as an artist in Birmingham.
How did you find the process of applying for the residency, and what kind of work do you plan to focus on in your time here?
The residency application was one of the easiest I’ve ever had to do, quite simply! Much of my work to date has been centred on a number of challenging issues relating to diversity, inclusion and belonging. But with this particular residency, I’m aiming to look more at commercial practice. But that doesn’t mean I won’t necessarily land on some of those subjects or give up on my engaged practice all together.
Most of my work has been quite issue-based, conceptual and abstract. How well you can sell that work, I don’t know - I’ve never really explored that question in a direct sense - and I’ve never had a solo exhibition.
There will always be an element of social engagement in my work; it’s part of my daily existence. But I think I’ll be moving in a different direction with it. I’ll be exploring VR, extended reality and the 3D/digital world. But I also want to keep making in the visceral sense, with a broad range of different kinds of materials. From a commercial point of view, that’s probably where I’ll start while I’m exploring the VR stuff.
Since you enjoy working with a broad range of materials, do you find you take inspiration from those materials, or are your ideas more abstract?
I’ve been asked this question before, actually. I think I always make work in a particular medium that’s right for that expression and for what I’m trying to say. And there are certain things that can translate themselves into different genres and different formats.
I might have some material and think, ‘OK, I could use that in this particular way’ - so sometimes the material does inspire me. But other times it could be a title that comes into my head, or it might be something I’ve read. And then I just think, ‘Wow, it would be really great to create something that says that.’ So I think it’s probably a bit of both.
The actual creative process of making is a very integral part of the whole thing, too. Although people tend to focus on the ‘end product’, sometimes the process of getting to that end product is the most interesting bit, really.
I find dereliction and derelict buildings quite interesting, but that's probably because I can see the beauty in the decay to some extent. That’s inspiring, and also for me it can act as a metaphor for things that are going on in society, so it just depends on how I use it.
Are there any particular pieces that spring to mind in talking about dereliction?
The largest piece I ever did (some years ago) was called Dark Matter, and it started from a process of research that I was going through. I was thinking about what it means to be here: born here, black and British. My particular generation struggles with claiming its Britishness, and we refer to places in the Caribbean or Africa as ‘home’ (where our parents came from). But we’ve never lived there, and when we go there (and even when our parents go back) they and we are seen as ‘foreign’ because of having travelled. So that took me through to thinking about why my generation has such a problem with claiming a British identity, and how do my children see themselves, and subsequently my grandchildren? How are they going to define themselves in the future?
I then started to look into the hidden histories of Birmingham, and into the Birmingham archives; going into the belly of the museum and sitting in the library - just researching all this stuff. I went to the slavery museum in Liverpool; I went to the museum in Bristol. It took me right down that rabbit hole. And it manifested in a piece of work that went through five floors of a derelict building.
When I think about it now, I’m aware of the fact that I still haven’t gone through the process of thinking through what that whole process did for me and how it impacted on me. It was the biggest piece I ever did, but I didn’t intend it to be; it just grew and became far, far more than an artwork. It engendered really strong emotions in people; they either loved it to bits, or hated it - and some people were scared by it. And a woman who lived in that house before it became derelict said that when she first came to see the piece, she couldn’t go into the space. She had to go away, and come back. And she got quite emotional because she said she had been a foster carer and had had a child of almost every nation go through that house and it impacted her deeply to see this transformation.
So a lot of the conversations, and my observations, were around how people responded to the work. And because there were a lot of varied responses, I never got around to thinking about or doing any work on how it had impacted on me. It was always difficult to get Birmingham to accept certain pieces of art, so it’s interesting to reflect on the public reaction to that piece.
It’s interesting that you say Birmingham struggles to accept certain artworks. Can you expand on this?
Birmingham audiences are the hardest audiences to impress; I’m not the only one that says it. There are a range of different contexts to that.
I don’t know whether, because its bylaws are steeped in Quaker history with early closing times for nightclubs and cultural venues, there’s a tension between its traditions and its pull towards an encounter with European influences and ‘cafe culture’, which then enabled the emergence of avant garde or experimental art, etc.
But the means for funding the arts has changed, as has the means for production, distribution and consumption of art. To some extent, these ways and means are more accessible but it’s not always the case; there’s an assumption there that everybody’s on the internet, for instance, and they’re not! There are still many deprived areas where people don’t have access to the internet, and to these digitised methods of distribution, and the pandemic showed us that all too clearly. Perhaps that plays into the dissemination (and subsequent acceptance) of art and culture, too.
Coming full circle, are there any ways you feel the physical space here at Cornwall Buildings will have an influence on the work you produce?
Well, what’s really amazing is that Bruntwood have allowed me to spread out into the room next door, so I actually have that space to myself, which gives me the option to create larger-scale pieces if I so wish. The Round Lemon crew are amazing too, so it’s nice to get to know them — it will be interesting to see where it all goes!