Blast! Festival has been produced by Multistory with and for local people. The festival takes place over six weeks in each of Sandwell’s six district towns: West Bromwich, Tipton, Rowley Regis, Oldbury, Smethwick and Wednesbury.
Unusually the works of art are not on show in traditional arts venues such as galleries but instead are displayed on the streets, Metro Line, shops, libraries, pubs, historic buildings and community venues.
On Saturday 25th May I headed over to West Bromwich for the Blast! Festival guided tour.
As I’d arrived a little early for the tour I decided to visit the Blast! Shop as curator of Birmingham Zine Fest Louise Byng and zine librarian Hannah Prentice were hosting a one day zine library pop-up.
Aside from the zines you could flick through, there were several spaces that had artwork on display from Sandwell College students and Jan McCullough.
Jan’s exhibition entitled ‘Home Instruction Manual’ comprised of printouts of advice given on an online forum after she’d searched for how to make a perfect home and photos which document her carrying out their detailed instructions.
Later that day Louise and Hannah held a zine making workshop which the tour I was on popped into briefly before viewing the aforementioned artwork.
Not sure why it was called the Blast! Shop as there wasn’t any items for sale, I would’ve expected with a name like that it would be stocking books, prints and postcards for example from the festival for visitors to purchase.
Before long it was time to head over to the Town Hall for the start of the guided tour which was literally a whistlestop tour as a whistle was blown when it was time to move onto the next venue.
I would’ve liked to have spent a bit more time looking at some of the exhibitions but I can appreciate there was a lot to pack into the two hour long tour. However the route was well planned and our guide did give us plenty of information regarding each artist/ exhibition we visited. It was also a great opportunity to hear from some of the featured artists discussing their work.
West Bromwich prospered during the Industrial Revolution but was hit badly by the recessions in the 1970s and 1980s however the area has enjoyed something of a regeneration in recent years thanks to developments such as the New Square shopping and entertainment complex.
It used to have a fantastic multi purpose venue and art gallery called the Public which closed in 2013 due to rising costs and funding issues. I would say that it’s an area where people don’t typically go to galleries so I loved that Blast! Festival were repurposing spaces such as a former Poundland store, an ex Age UK office, the Indoor Market and exteriors of buildings rather than hosting in traditional art spaces such as galleries therefore bringing art directly to the locals.
Here’s a roundup of further highlights of the tour:
Annegien Van Doorn talked to us about her project which was based in the Indoor Market called ‘In Passing’ which was made up of photographic and video work of everyday objects that she’s found. I liked that you couldn’t tell whether the items were captured as she found them or whether she’d constructed the scene.
Rob Hewitt came on the tour with us, his work ‘Blow Up’ was based on people such as his great grandmother learning how to work in service at Sandwell Hall prior to its demolition. We first saw looped images at the Indoor Market and later on saw a larger display showing photographs pre and post blast of his recreation on the side of the Kenrick & Jefferson building.
Also on show at the Indoor Market was Nilupa Yasmin’s commission ‘Where Can I Find This?’ which was a series of photographs woven together to create colourful images based on the markets in Sandwell.
Amongst the various installations in the former Poundland store was The Caravan Gallery’s ‘Sandwell Pride of Place Project’ which will grow as visitors add to the display. Jan and Chris were on hand to tell us all about working with local people who have been visiting the exhibition. I loved the quirkiness shown in the photos (see below) and am looking forward to seeing the space expand as people bring in their photos and memorabilia of Sandwell.
One of the stops on the tour was the British Muslim School which was formerly the Grade II listed Ryland Memorial School of Art in Lodge Road. Many features were still retained I particularly liked the use of the window bay as part of the Girl Gaze exhibition (see below).
The exhibition which bought together work by four female artists explored the Punjab and the diaspora community through the voices of young girls and women.
Also at the former Poundland store was Czeslaw Siegieda’s ‘Polska Britannica’ archive which showed the protagonists daily life at home and at religious festivals amongst other subjects. You could see from the intimacy of the photos that the photographer was documenting members of his culture. Until this tour I had no idea that West Bromwich had such a huge Polish community.
Jon Tonks complimented Czesław Siegieda’s work with his exhibition ‘Stories From Home’. Whereas Siegieda documented life in the Polish community in the 1970s and 1980s Tonks’ work is a contemporary portrait of the Central and Eastern European communities living in Sandwell. Both exhibitions explored cultural identity and what makes a place home.
Black Country Living includes work by John Myers who was been exhibited last year at Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Janine Wiedel. Presented in public spaces across Sandwell these images reflect the industrial heritage of the area.
Niall McDiarmid’s ‘Looking For Sandwell’ shows the diverse population of the area. Displayed on hoardings on the Kenrick and Jefferson Building, and the High Street, West Bromwich the images are striking. It made wonder about the lives of the people he showcased. I think these photos could work well as a Humans of New York style project.
The tour culminated back at the Town Hall where we saw the ‘Tipton Carnival Queens Shine Again’ exhibition which was part of the ‘Comeback’ project by Erik Kessels. I think the images of the former carnival beauty queens worked really well in the Grade II listed Victorian building.
As the locals would say it was a bostin’ day out.
Other Blast! Festival events that have caught my eye include:
For further events and information about Blast! Festival which runs until 29th June please visit https://www.blastphotofestival.com/