On June 2019 our Muslim Girls Fence project based in Tower Hamlets presented an exhibition evening at Rich Mix, London, asking the question that many conversations in the project had revolved around: ‘Who Defines Tower Hamlets?’. The purpose of the night was to take the conversations we had as a project to the wider local community for them to engage and contribute to it, as well as to celebrate and emphasise how valuable the women’s contributions and experiences are in providing understanding of the local area that disrupts policy and decision-makers’ narratives and can impact change.
The evening was an exhibition and showcase of the women’s artwork as well as a number of community activists’ work and films that reflected the themes of the conversations the women had been having. The room was also filled with workshop-stations for people to think about the borough and who defines it in interactive ways. This included a poem written by MGF participants which attendees were invited to add their own lines to; collaging new headlines about the borough in contrast to those displayed; painting and colouring maps of Tower Hamlets in relation to areas they felt comfortable/uncomfortable in to compare and contrast with one another. The series of different stimuli enabled the project to symbolically ask the wider public whether mainstream understandings of Tower Hamlets can be disrupted through experiential knowledge of their context. For example, the borough is so often defined by media, politicians and policy-makers as a “problem area”, “deprived borough”, or “segregated” community, and often these problems are implied to be caused by ethnic, cultural and religious differences between local residents – with particular emphasis resting on the borough having the highest percentage of Muslim residents in England and Wales (and the highest concentration of Bangladeshis).
However, the local Muslim Girls Fence Project participants discussed these questions of representation and identity over the course of the project and felt that in a context of austerity, gentrification and structural racism, the responsibility for any “community dissolution” or “isolation” rests on government and policy-makers decisions, rather than local people’s different identities. For example, government cuts, gentrification, and Islamophobic media coverage of the area were themes constantly highlighted by the women as destroying any sense of community in the area. Because of this, the exhibition evening was a chance for them to suggest a re-definition of ‘community’ beyond an emphasis on ‘sameness’ and instead, on grounds of equal access to safety and a sense of equal ownership of local space.
The key exhibit of the night was the ‘love-coat’ piece that the MGF participants designed with artist, Isabel Castro-Jung. In of itself it reflected the conclusions the women had come to regarding community because as a patchwork of abstract self-portrait paintings by the women made into a ‘community portrait’, it embraces the multifaceted nature of community: the whole is constituted of many individuals. Moreover, because the piece will eventually be able to be worn by multiple people at the same time, it becomes a performance of community in itself: if one person falls down, or is not supported, the whole piece fails. The exhibit and event thus begged the question of how we create communities and spaces that allow us to prioritise people’s safety at a time of government cuts, redevelopment projects which isolate and exclude local communities from local space, and increasing understandings of young people as criminal – questions repeatedly brought up throughout the Muslim Girls Fence project and the exhibition evening.
Subsequently, through the exhibition and interactive workshop, members of the public immersed themselves in the sorts of activities and conversations that Muslim Girls Fence participants engaged in over the project. Moreover, a programme of spoken-word poetry from locals, Tasmia Salim, Amina Jama and Miftaul Islam; film screenings and talks from local activist and community groups such as Mile End Community Project, NUMBI arts and more, kept the conversation grounded in the local area and local people’s work, experiences and histories as a lens through which to define Tower Hamlets, rather than a top-down approach.
The Muslim Girls Fence project in Tower Hamlets was preoccupied with the question of defining local community beyond the way it is represented because through the space of self-expression that was created through learning fencing, women came to also share and express their thoughts around their identities. These conversations and activities culminated in a desired to impact the ways they see themselves and how they would like their own narrations of Tower Hamlets to reach the wider public. The exhibition night is just the beginning of the conversation.