Killer heels and dancehall queens: Brent’s biennial brings queer joy to a brutal city | Art

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Local museums can only dream of the allure of artist Linett Kamala’s Disya Dancehall exhibition. Kamala has taken over the former fish and chip shop Cod’s Plaice opposite Kilburn station in north London and hung it with her paintings of the area’s 2000s dancehall queens. Tight lace, designer labels, serious bling, killer nails: it was dressing to impress like performance art.

Cod’s Plie has been redesigned as a Jamaican takeaway, complete with cafe tables. The day it opened, it smelt deliciously of warming pancakes. People came from the streets to buy food and paintings (none were for sale) then stayed to listen to an audio piece that mixed dancehall sounds with interviews from the stage.

Other artists celebrated rave culture as one of Britain’s last great youth movements; Kamala makes a strong case for a reassessment of dancehall: the sound systems, community, music and style of the late 90s and early 2000s. No doubt the crowd of Kilburnites trying to buy patties and popcorn will be followed by style editors on a pilgrimage to discover Kamala’s paintings and photos from the time. Hoping they hang around and listen to the stories too.

More silence, please… Ed Webb-Ingall’s Growing Up Brent. Photographer: Thierry Bal

Because this show, and the Brent Biennale of which it is a part, celebrates home as a cultural construct: club children, ravers, chosen families, congregations, support groups and communities that offer refuge and love in a brutal city. It’s been 10 years since Home Secretary Theresa May announced her aim to “create a truly hostile environment here in Britain for illegal immigrants”, the question underlying this second edition of the biennale is what home means to first- and second-generation immigrants in this motley borough, in a country seemingly unwilling to welcome them.

What does it mean to hold an art biennale in a borough that has lost services and amenities, as the years of austerity bleed into the new cost-of-living crisis? How do you program socially engaged arts projects without them becoming an unsustainable stopgap for lost school arts programs, youth centers, and LGBTQ+ support groups? What role can art play?

Like Disya Dancehall, it can provide a space to hang out, listen and reflect. Shenece Oretha’s In Counter Harmony in the extraordinary Tin Tabernacle is a sonic collage of bands using communal space – including Brent’s Reggae Choir – playing amid lavender curtains and bright streamers. Sarah Rose’s An Open Letter of Many Replies uses the damp, wooded interior of a disused bowling club in Roundwood Park. Rose reads a tribute to environmentalist Rachel Carson and her lover Dorothy Freeman: a soothing experience, like listening to love letters in the dark.

Immediate call… Darning and Other Times by Katarzyna Perlak.
Immediate call… Darning and Other Times by Katarzyna Perlak. Photographer: Thierry Bal

The biennial draws its title – In the House of My Love – from Ezra Green’s A Poem to the Nationalist Marcher (For the Queer People of Warsaw) which imagines loving hospitality as a force to counteract homophobia, nationalism and sectarianism. A major and urgent part of the program focuses on queer identity and visibility. Hanging above the shelves of Willesden Library hangs a flippant sign that reads “Growing Up Brent” directs visitors to a radio play produced by Ed Webb-Ingall with members of the Mosaic LGBT+ Young Persons’ Trust. Together they imagine the beginnings of the support group, founded in Brent in the shadow of Article 28 and the AIDS epidemic.

Accessed down an unattractive alleyway, in a railway arch between mechanical workshops, Alex Baczynski-Jenkins’ film You Are a Guest Now is a rambling but deeply touching portrait of a group of young gay friends finding beauty in the social margins in Poland. The insanitary place seems appropriate: they live in precarious times, amid the erosion of LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights.

In the pretty St. Matthew’s Church, Katarzyna Perlak hung decorative totems inspired by pyjamas – Polish paper chandeliers. Perlak includes contemporary ephemera: plastic toys, bundled keychains, a studded stiletto boot. As a revamped folk craft, the pyjamas have immediate appeal. The congregation was curious, but some started reading the accompanying text and then walked away. This biennial’s programming may be tailored to its community, but much of its text is heavy with academic artwankerese.

In a building housing a mental health charity and an English language school, Arwa Aburawa and Turab Shah’s beautifully shot film I Carry It With Me Everywhere explores the complex webs of duty, danger, belonging and family ties that keep migrants suspended between two worlds. A totemic work of this biennial, it is produced locally by filmmakers who lead a youth program.

Much of the work of this biennale is at the community level, invisible to visitors, as it should be. It’s not meant to be a fancy display case. Brent has reimagined this international behemoth, the art biennale, as a simple expression of an ongoing commitment to creative engagement.

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