These 6 incredible art projects are transforming lives in the UK

Unity is about recognising our differences, it's about using our resources to support each other's struggles. It is about becoming accomplices in each other’s fights for survival.

Nim Ralph
18 March 2015

Last week I was in the car with my partner. We were visiting her mother’s grave. At some traffic lights I leant over to give her a reassuring kiss. I looked up to multiple faces gawping at me; twisted between sneering and disgust.

I’d like to say this is rare but it’s not. I’m never sure if people are affronted because we’re queer, because we're people of colour, or because we're queer couple of colour.

Each part of my identity is bound up together. But intersectionality isn’t only about race and sexuality; people might be marginalised from our community for other reasons. They might not have a disposable income to meet us in coffee shops, there might be barriers to them accessing venues, or there might be elitist language in online spaces, preventing people getting involved in conversations.

Creating community is a radical form of resistance. By building unity across difference, we are able to demonstrate that alternative models of living are possible. We are able to transform lives of people who are marginalised within the current structure of ‘normal’ and ‘valued’. Unity is about recognising our differences, it's about using our resources to support each other's struggles. It is about becoming accomplices in each other’s fights for survival.

I decided to seek out some real-life examples. Here are six UK-based projects that are looking beyond their own communities to create transformative spaces.

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1. Cachín Cachán Cachunga! (CCC), Glasgow/Edinburgh

CCC is an art movement like no other, hosting events across Scotland that showcase emerging talent. What’s different about CCC is that it puts LGBTQI and disabled artists at the centre of its work. At SEEP II, their most recent project, visitors were greeted by a treasure trove of visual, recorded and live art including emotive photography exploring the queer body and expressive BSL poetry performances.

There are two things that make CCC really unique: the broad representation of identity at their events and the resources used to make that happen. Visitors are enabled to interact with the art through tables of large print and braille accompaniments, audio tours of the space, subtitling and BSL interpreters for every performance.

CCC’s founder, Sandra, spoke at length on experimentation and the importance of mistakes in creating transformative projects. Mistakes are an important aspect of growth and developing social bonds; how we respond to our own mistakes can be fundamental to whether intersectional spaces work. “It’s so important to be humble, be gracious, and to always be open to learning,” they say.

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2. My Heart Sings, London

On the surface of it, this is a community choir. But founder, Shilpa, says it’s about focussing on women’s voices and strengthening their ability to speak up. She is critical of the individualistic approach to empowerment that underpins the ‘wellbeing’ sector in the UK. Instead, she believes that singing can be used to build networks that support struggles for liberation and empowerment across identities and differences. She says: “Each time you create a safe, inclusive space, participants have an opportunity to unclench a little, to thrive instead of just survive, to experience a taste of the world we are trying to build”.

Her group meets weekly in an accessible community centre just off a busy housing estate in London. When I visited her class the first thing that struck me was the number of children; Shilpa believes it’s important to remove barriers for self-defining women to participate, especially barriers due to caring responsibilities. The first session is always free, and after that it operates on a low cost sliding scale, with free classes for women who otherwise couldn’t afford it.


3. Numbi, London

Numbi is a pan-African and diasporic movement who tell the stories of those most marginalised by colonial history. They are led in this process by a Somali proverb: ‘If we all come together we can mend the crack in the sky’. By creating platforms for musicians, poets, visual artists and filmmakers, they create strong communities and a collective re-imagining of our futures together.

Attending one of their events means exploring time, location and senses to other possibilities. They always ensure that diasporic and different voices are woven through their work; whether queer, pan-African or disabled. Anna, an organiser, says: “We aim to inspire participants to break through limitations in their connection to beauty and to overcome internalised oppression”.

Numbi say they work through arts, imagination and creativity as this is where, they believe, their power lies. Indeed, many of the projects I found are putting transformation into practice through the arts. Perhaps this is because arts give us the power to take control of our own stories.


4. Shake! , London

Shake! is a black-led project established in response to the undermining of young people’s voices in education and the media. They run a week long summer school twice a year in black community spaces across London. Half the time is spent in workshops exploring themes of power, race and media, and half channels that into artistic projects.

Farzana, Shake!’s coordinator, says that “young people often associate formal education with being undermined and told what to do”. They try to turn that experience of education upside down by bringing in young people and community activists as educators – there aren’t ‘teachers’ or ‘experts’ in the room, just people like them.

Earlier this year they held a course with a focus on mental health and wellbeing. They explored an array of topics including diet, class, reparations, child birth, sexuality and urbanism. This learning was supported by artists, on hand to train the young people in spoken word, filmmaking and song-writing. The young people support each other to find their voices through developing collaborative artistic outputs.

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5. The Edge Fund, UK-wide

As an inaugural member of The Edge Fund, it’s a project that’s close to my heart. Edge was set up to provide an alternative system of funding for groups who often find themselves un-fundable in the wider world. Groups like African Rainbow Family who support African LGBTI people in the UK, UFFC a coalition of people affected by deaths in state custody and Sisters of Frida (SoF) a disabled women’s collective.

Edge has a radical approach to decision making, as Sophie Pritchard has previously written for Transformation. SoF, for example, had their application reviewed by Edge’s disabled and women members before anyone else. The disabled members could have asked the membership to turn it down if they thought the project was disempowering to disabled beneficiaries in anyway. Once the disabled members had reviewed SoF’s application, they fed back to the other members on why it's a good project. This way of working leads to discussion and learning across different groups.

In this model self-determination and power are kept very much within the hands of those that funding bodies usually disempower. That’s because in traditional methods of giving the people with money make decisions on behalf of people without money.


6. Open Barbers, London

Open Barbers is a hairdressing project run by two trans-identified friends, Greygory and Felix. They set out to provide a safe space for people to ask for any type of haircut, without assumptions about their identities - and have opened up a world for trans, genderqueer and queer people to be affirmed for who they are.

Growing up trans is not easy. Gender is projected onto us in ways we often don’t even notice, including in hairdressers where every choice of style is described as ‘men's’ or ‘women's’.

When you are battling for the world to respect your gender identity, aesthetics are important. When you are asking for someone to help shape your identity it can be humiliating and heartbreaking when they do not listen.

They have worked to make the salon accessible. They have a 'pay what you can' policy for haircuts, have partnered with afro hair stylists, and offer an at home service for people who can’t access the salon.

When I asked if this was a challenge Greygory told me people have tried to persuade them that putting inclusivity before profit won’t work. But, he says: “Success isn’t always obvious if you are defining it purely within capital driven terms, we are driven by people”.

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