Artists in lockdown interview series – Kom Achall

This week, in the third in my series of interviews with artists in lockdown I’ve been chatting to Kom Achall about her art practice and curatorial work. Kom combines a practice in street photography and multimedia work with curatorial projects and creative workshops. She is one of the artist residents at Newhampton Arts Centre in Wolverhampton. She is currently putting together a new exhibition called, ‘Out of Darkness, Cometh Light’ which showcases artwork created during lockdown by 21 artists who live, work or study in Wolverhampton.


What is your art practice?

I am a visual artist & street photographer, community artist and curator; I have exhibited at various locations in the West Midlands and curated a number of art exhibitions. My own art practice explores the British Asian identity and what it means to live between cultures, through my personal journey, I question identity and location. I examine and research issues around Diaspora, cultural hybridisation, domesticity and female Asian identity. I make artwork using a variety of materials and express my ideas through photography, imagery, digital layering, collage, painting, sculpture, installation art and symbolic objects.

Identity is quite a complex and complicated subject for people who have grown up between cultures and different locations, with belonging and integration an everyday fact of life. This is not exclusive to the British Asian identity, many, if not all Diaspora question ‘where do we fit’.

One of the exhibitions you have curated explored the 70 year anniversary of the Partition of India. Can you tell me more about the idea behind this?

I thought it was important to mark The 70th Anniversary of the Partition of India; the exhibition was called ‘UNTOLD.’ The reason for this title was because the history of the partition and the end of British rule in India, in many ways, is an untold history in our schools and amongst the general British public. The idea behind the project was to highlight a subject matter that appeared to be missing out of text books and British awareness. The exhibition was held in 5 venues across the city of Wolverhampton. There were 40 artists from different ethnicities involved in the exhibitions. The venues were;  Newhampton Arts Centre, Bantock House Museum, Asylum Art Gallery, the Viner Gallery (which is based in Wolverhampton Grammar School) and Temple Street gallery which has unfortunately closed now. I remember thinking that the Partition of India wasn’t just India’s history, but Britain’s history too and it was therefore important for me to get this message across to everyone involved in the project as well as to the audiences. As part of my research I interviewed people aged 75+ who have lived through the partition, people who had experienced these catastrophic events, had lost loved ones, lost friends, lost community and lost their homes. It was very moving to hear their emotional stories, see their tears, the horrors they had lived through and see the pain they were still carrying, information of life experiences real and unique to them and un-captured in any books.  

With 5 venues and 40 artists we estimated our audiences reached around 5,000 people over the week. One of the feedbacks from people was ‘we didn’t realise it had happened as recently as 70 years ago’.

Poster for ‘Untold’ an exhibition marking the 70th anniversary of the Partition of India featuring an image by Kom Achall 2017

Have you managed to continue your work as an artist during lockdown?

It’s been hard, especially in the month of April, I was thinking about the pandemic and what was going on in the world and in this country. I felt we were in a really dark place, we were in the height of the pandemic, the coronavirus had separated us from our family and friends, our traditions, habits and life-styles. Towards the end of April I started to think about the word ‘Time’ and how time had changed in just a few weeks, as we were now working to time in a new and different way. Everything that we knew as normal was no longer there as if we were in an alternative reality, in a different time and working around time differently. I made a piece of work using a photograph and the word ‘Time’ and added the motto of Wolverhampton ‘Out of Darkness cometh light’. 

I felt that we are not going to be in this time forever, there is darkness in life and there is light and it is only a matter of time before we will be on the other side of this awful situation. That’s where the idea about working with artists and putting together an online exhibition came from. I saw artists putting their work on social media and invited a few of them to take part. The aim is to get more exposure for the creative work we have been doing during lockdown and to encapsulate this time.

And you’ve documented the Black Lives Matters protest in Birmingham?

The first time I watched the death of George Floyd, it hurt me in the pit of my stomach, I could not watch the video footage again as it was too upsetting. Racism, injustice and police brutality has been happening for so long it’s appalling and disgraceful. George Floyd’s murder brought back a lot of painful memories for me and many of my Black and Asian friends, they remembered the racist experiences they had in the past and in the present.  I have always felt BAME communities have not been understood or listened to, we have been stereotyped by the media and propaganda has always been used to oppress people of colour. Until race relations and actualities around British Empire and colonialism are taught in schools or talked about in communities and workplaces, without the fear of ‘hate crime’, I believe unrest will continue to divide people and communities.  

The Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham was a really important demonstration and I had to go and show my support in the hope that things could change for future generations. The injustice and murder of people of colour is abhorrent and has been going on for too long. Living in the UK, I have grown up experiencing racism, my grandparents and parents who came to the UK in the 50s and 60s also lived through racism. I know that we’re in a pandemic and I took precautions, I went with my daughter but had a talk before we went, saying that if we didn’t feel safe we would come home, we stayed on the outskirts and we wore masks. We made our way to Centenary Square, where there were around 4,000 people and I was really moved to see black, white and Indian people, young and old all wanting to see a change, wanting to hear the truth about history, not just in the UK but globally. We are a global village, the world has, in one sense started to become closer because of the awareness raised by the impact of the internet and social media.

Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham (c) Kom Achall 4th June 2020

It took me back to one of the projects I did for my Masters in 2014, I made a video called ‘Underlying Perspectives’, which was shown at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in 2014 and the Asylum Art Gallery.  This short video of black and white still photographs of urban life, portrayed a visual representation of roles and rituals played out in popular culture, evidencing the everyday lives of people in city centres, mainly London, Manchester and Birmingham.  The photographs display levels of acceptance and tolerance, but at the heart of the piece, resides social instability, an underlying presence of unpredictability and the unforeseen. The video and photos evidence societal misunderstandings and deep-rooted discriminations which have often led to the expression of sudden unrest and disturbances.  Both the dialogue and photography emphasise this in the passionate protest between British ethnic communities of Palestinian and Israeli descent, indicative of their and our intrinsic political and religious differences.

This work explored, how we all live together, there appears to be little or no concern people are getting on with their day to day life and then it takes one situation like Blair Peach, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, Mark Duggan, Stephan Lawrence, Lee Rigby etc and suddenly there is unrest and we are divided. I believe it’s because it never gets dealt with and it just takes one spark to cause a societal uprising demanding change. ‘Underlying Perspectives’ are just sitting underneath; I sometimes question, are we waiting for the next injustice, as change appears to be very slow.

Black Lives Matters protest in Birmingham 4th June 2020 (c) Kom Achall

Media has also changed, there’s another narrative now, it’s not just the media telling the public what to think, it’s the everyday person, it’s the civilians, it’s the people on the streets that are videoing, capturing what’s happening and uploading it and telling a different truth. We are now all reporters, we are not being manipulated by the media as much and I think that is a good thing, ordinary people are uploading injustices like George Floyd’s murder and it is being brought right to our door steps. I wrote about this in my dissertation, around how digital technologies and social media have impacted our lives and how we can share our stories in real time, across countries and traditional boundaries.

Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham 4th June 2020 (c) Kom Achall

Are there any other things that you’ve seen online during lockdown that have inspired you?

While in lockdown – I was asked to join a group on Facebook, which has been very inspirational. It’s a group of photographers who have been inspired by the street photography of Vivian Maier (1926-2009). I really love Vivian’s street photography she was born in New York and was a self-taught street photographer. She worked for 40 years as a nanny; her photography was only discovered and recognized after her death. Vivian Maier had an amazing sense of observation and an eye for capturing the moments; she produced an extensive body of photographs that became a media sensation in 2010.

Dudley Road during lockdown (c) Kom Achall 2020

This inspired me to go out in my local area and take photographs and try to capture and document the streets. I noticed that there have been more people outside, riding bikes, children playing and more community spirit, which has been positive to see. I’ve been taking photographs of nature too, both in my garden and local area and really appreciating the natural world, there seems to be less pollution and more wildlife. I’ve had more time to reflect and think about my own practice. It’s been nice to have time to do that.

Ride my bike (c) Kom Achall 2020

Further information

You can find out more about Kom’s work via her website here. To find out more and follow discussion about the Partition of India follow the Untold Stories page on Facebook, which you can link to here.

The online exhibition ‘Out of Darkness Cometh Light’ will be viewable online from the 10th until the 21st of July , you can read more information about it here.

Thank you to Kom for talking about her work and experiences of lockdown and to Arts Council England for supporting my practice at this time.

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