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The art collective turning abandoned sites into art spaces, leaving behind a safer space for whoever needs it - written by Molly Rose Done

Starting as an impromptu spoken word event, with a microphone hooked up to an amp in busy central Bristol and offered out to anyone with a poem to read from a phone screen, art collective Shiiku hosted their first outdoor exhibitions in late summer this year, giving Bristol a much-needed return to physical art.

Headed by siblings Iman and Omar West, Shiiku appeared on social media during lockdown and work began to bring the concept to life as soon as restrictions were lifted. Since the initial spoken word event, the collective has hosted two exhibitions: “Clean Your Wounds” and “PANIC''. The name of the subsequent exhibition alluded to the collective having just 2 days of planning to get the event set up ahead of the ‘rule of 6’ implementation, yet there was no hint of such panic on the day.

Lockdown opened up a strange dichotomy of self-care rhetoric whilst unloading a huge amount of pressure for creative productivity. The unprecedented free time brought with it a seemingly infinite expanse of opportunity - opportunity that was easily wasted.
The space was used to bring local artists together, with an open invite spread through word of mouth, but it also served as a clean-up initiative, with Shiiku leaving behind a safer environment for anyone who might need it after the art had gone.
We saw Instagram infographics on how to allow yourself rest and reflection ‘in these crazy times’, followed by 100 New Macrame Patterns To Try This Lockdown. Art is too often judged on its commerciality, with success based on sales, and the sudden rise of home-made, home-based online sellers became an inspiring yet easily overwhelming way to compare your own level of creative output.

I asked Iman how the idea to put on pandemic exhibitions came about and she echoed this sentiment, mentioning the lack of lockdown motivation, but also the fact that any content made during this time was limited to being shared on social media. Iman also spoke about the importance of collaboration within art - with months of isolation only heightening this feeling, and how she wanted the events to bring people back together (even if 2 metres apart).

A huge intention behind using the space that was finally chosen was Shiiku’s focus on community. The space was used to bring local artists together, with an open invite spread through word of mouth, but it also served as a clean-up initiative, with Shiiku leaving behind a safer environment for anyone who might need it after the art had gone. The patch of land on Cherry Lane was an ignored corner of Stokes Croft, once used as a safe shelter by many but becoming uninhabitable after being overrun with needles and trash. Many of the exhibiting artists took part in the clean-up (with help from Benoit Bennet and Tony Fortune from the People's Republic of Stokes Croft) in the weeks leading up to the first exhibition and this had a noticeable effect on the event itself. I asked Iman how she thought the (gloved) hands-on approach had affected the event. She said there was a ‘definite feeling that the artists were more connected to the exhibition’. Iman went on to explain how seeing the neglected site suddenly full of their own work was so much more rewarding than just placing art on gallery walls, and it really brought the artists together. ‘The whole point of Shiiku is about collaboration and freedom of expression, it’s not about making money or self-promotion but showing your work and letting people enjoy it in a non-hierarchical way’. This summary of Shiiku from Iman is not just a concept, but the reality of the collective's achievements. The idea of self/group curation opens up even more creative opportunity to those exhibiting, as well as allowing for impromptu collaboration.
Both events saw examples of creatives coincidentally meeting on the day then placing their work together with intention, often allowing new interpretations from audiences, as well as giving the artists themselves a new appreciation and understanding of their own work. The physical layout of the exhibition owed itself to this idea of collaboration and intimacy, with no distinct stage. Omar and Iman hoped this would help bridge the gap between audience and performer during the spoken word and this was clear to see as many of those watching were comfortable taking the microphone to give a spontaneous poetry performance. This in turn opened up more conversations between creatives, and Shiiku were able to get even more people on board for future exhibitions.

Inspired by the success of the initial spoken word event in the city centre, Shiiku went forward knowing that for their future events, including the exhibitions at Cherry Lane, accessibility was paramount. This was seen from the range of art on show, with photography, print and textiles up around the space, performance art and animations projected on white boards and walls, as well as the live music and poetry at both events. The open mic style spoken word was open to anyone at both exhibitions and it was encouraging to see people that had merely entered the space from curiosity feel comfortable to get up and read their work. Even the space itself felt open, changing the atmosphere of the event. When I spoke to Iman about the impact she felt the nature of space had on the exhibitions, she cited one of the most noticeable differences being the physical accessibility, with the music drifting on to Stokes Croft from the corner of Cherry Lane and bringing people in. The outdoor space - with its wide entrance obstructed only by small trees left growing after clearing the space- meant that the exhibition was more inviting than the ticketed door of many indoor event spaces, something Iman and Omar were aware of when organising and finding the perfect place to hold the exhibitions.

The exhibition was such a great opportunity for so many as it acted not only as motivation for a new project, but an open offer to exhibit your work with so many creatives. Lockdown left many of us feeling starved of artistic collaboration and encouragement, and the arts are still facing so many limitations. With the government’s resurfaced retraining scheme seemingly concentrated on those in arts, and the universal struggle for jobs, Shiiku’s exhibitions have been a hugely inspiring and necessary addition to post lockdown Bristol.

Shiiku is led by Iman and Omar West. Iman graduated from Kingston school of art in 2018 and is currently on placement at Spike Island, working alongside the gallery curators for upcoming shows for her Masters degree. Omar studies filmmaking at UWE.

The next exhibition is set to happen in the new year – follow @Shiiku._ for more.

Photos by Gabriel Turner

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