SMU-in-London: Arts 2013

Students in the SMU-in-London: Arts spend five weeks in the city, becoming 21st-century explorers while taking two courses. Associate Theatre Professor Gretchen Smith in the Meadows School of the Arts teaches London theatre history from the era of Shakespeare to the present, while Dance Professor Shelley Berg teaches about London as a metropolis filled with myriad “performance” experiences – cultural, social, historical and political. The students have visited museums, palaces, food markets, theatres (for “formal performances” and backstage tours) and participated in multiple “scavenger hunts,” and walked and walked and walked!

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The cultural river that is Brick Lane

An update from Thomas:

As I walked down Brick Lane, I felt the metaphor of “Brick Lane as a river” swirl around my ankles. The Sanskrit street signs, Jewish buildings, Christian churches, and curry restaurants proved that this was a very deep river. A river of cultures extending back through generations of relocated families, all of whom had carved their place in the terrain. I saw the sign for Katz’ string and bag wholesalers, an example given in Sinclair’s article, faded against its brick backdrop, the letters of the sign as permanent as the history of the Jewish people in the area. I saw Bengali restaurants and merchandise lining the streets — a more recent group to call Brick Lane their home. Finally, I met the descendent of a Huguenot in the Brick Lane chapel, trying to retrace his ancestral footsteps.

Exploring the area on a weekday afternoon, I didn’t notice an overwhelming amount of tourists. I did, however, get a sense of what life was like on a daily basis in the area. This was interesting because, in terms of the performative aspect of the street, I felt as if I was backstage or between shows. Since the area is such a popular place for commerce on the weekends, I felt as though I was experiencing more of an everyday environment than that of the highly performative commercialized weekends that occur when the area is crowded with customers. I also find it interesting that, by Kennedy’s definition, the term tourist applies to more than just foreigners. In this case, any Londoner who does not have cultural or geographic ties to Brick Lane becomes a tourist when they visit the site for its novelty or material presentation.

Given the highly diverse history of Brick Lane, it’s hard to spot a native as compared to a tourist or visitor. The natives who stood out most strongly were the members of the Bangladeshi population, as they were ethnically distinct and I often overheard them speaking Bengali. The various ethnic restaurants seemed to define the area. It seemed almost as if the ethnicities are marking their territory, when in reality, they are solely trying to market their culture the best way they know how — with traditional cuisine. The market in this area is so saturated with curry restaurants, I wonder how any one restaurant stays open in such a competitive environment. This points to a perhaps hidden connection between the Bengali citizens. There must be a strong sense of community in the area in which Bengali citizens help to support one another’s endeavors.

I finally came to the end of the river at Spitalfields market. The market had an interesting combination of merchandise. The covered area was a mesh of various privately owned stands that sold different products. I saw stands that were catering directly to foreign tourists with merchandise plastered with the British flag and “I Love London” slogans. I also saw stands that were for the London consumer, filled with clothing, hats, and accessories. Spitalfields was a prime example of performative consumerism. The antiquity of the stands made me, as the consumer, feel as though I had stepped backwards in time, or into an authentic ethnic marketplace. This clashed harshly with the modernism of much of the merchandise.

I discovered a monument in the Christ Church. It was a statue erected in the memory of Robert Ladbroke, the president of Chirst’s Hospital. He was a “greatly esteemed” individual to the community. The monument’s presentation in the church gives a holy connotation. It was placed in the front of the room, just feet from the altar. This demonstrates the inclusiveness of the community at Brick Lane. In other London neighborhoods, it might be extremely difficult to have a monument erected in a church, especially at the altar, but the citizens of Brick Lane exhibit such a pride in their constituents, they wanted to honor one in a spiritual environment, where he might be remembered every Sunday. Perhaps this close-knit community was a byproduct of the Lane serving as a sort of refuge for outcasts. The Huguenots cast out of France, the Irish and the Jews, and most recently, the Bengalis from the Greater Sylhet region, have come to form their own neighborhoods here, which is why it is dismissive, as noted by Sinclair, to refer to the area by its common name Banglatown.

I noticed that Brick Lane was home to a very unique performative style, as is any neighborhood in a major city. One example of “showing doing” I noticed was the presentation of the Bengali food in the restaurants down the lane. In an area dominated by Middle Eastern cuisine, presentation is key in catching the curiosity and attention of consumers. I noticed in certain shops, they would prepare the food right in front of you, carving from rows of large roast chickens. This performance generates a sense of authenticity and allows you to see and smell the food from the street. It also indicates a certain freshness about the food you can consume there. The performance was enhanced by the ethnic music and decor that aided in the authentication of the experience for the consumer, or audience.

Showing doing was prevalent in the Spitalfields Market as well. A man owning a hat stand, sported a fedora that was similar in style to the very hats he sold. Truman’s Pub across the street, which was originally a brewery, lacked air conditioning and refrigeration, and maintained its original wood flooring and tables in an attempt to appeal to the historical aesthetic of the tourist looking for an authentic experience.

The ever-shifting liminal norm was something that was strongly present at Brick Lane. The observation that jumped out at me was that of the graffiti artwork adorning the brick walls. The bright colors and hip hop imagery clashed with the traditional ethnic decor and antiquated stone buildings. Upon speaking to the artist, he informed me that the artwork is commissioned by a town board. The artists must appeal to the board and request a space and time to paint. Then, upon presentation of a portfolio, the artist might be selected to legally practice his art. This is an interesting concept, as the legal oversight and safe environment provided for the graffiti artists produce brilliant and interesting cultural murals. A stand in the market that stood out to me was a record and t-shirt stand. Amidst the maze of stands selling Bengali scarves and London swag, was a stand selling records and t-shirts with pop culture themes. This became prevalent amongst the traditional backdrop of the market, a mark of modern consumerism in an “authentic” area.

Overall, the deep cultural environment that Brick Lane represents is simultaneously overwhelming and awe-inspiring. The cultural river flows daily, changing course over time, leaving layers of history, landmarks, stories, and memories as it shifts. It is a true example of the international power of London, and a testimony to the vast diversity of the city. It is an area that has fought its way through time, supporting the downtrodden, and has found its place as a tourist attraction, a shrine, and a milestone in the history of the people of London.

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