In the gallery section of Bhau Daji Lad Museum lies a curious collection of objects. Rose-patterned velvet underpants worn by the wrestlers in North West England are displayed next to the dummy of a large bear. Photos of a pipe-smoking contest are hung next to the ones of a gurning tournament, a bizarre contest that challenges people to distort their faces the most.
While it may seem as though no two items on display have anything in common, a walk around the show makes the theme apparent — it’s an eccentric mix of bizzare objects that document 21st century Britain — told with a narrative peppered with British wit. Alan Kane travelled the length and breadth of the UK with fellow collaborator and Turner award-winning artist Jeremy Deller in creating “Folk Archive”. The project is a quirky collection of more than 280 works of video, audio, drawings, paintings, costumes, photographs and
installations that opened at the gallery on October 30.
The project started out as a guerrilla attack on the government’s idea of the British folk art. “Folk art in British museums was archaic; think wooden art and craft items. We knew that in the countryside and packed streets of Britain, an alternative vibrant culture of art was thriving. We set out to document this movement in the hope that perhaps a century later, it would help archivists understand the 21st century better,” explains Kane.
Humour, inventiveness and quirkiness became the criteria for curation. “With ‘Folk Archive’, we are treading a path between being artists and being anthropologists,” states Deller.
In the 2000s, Kane and Deller tread jam and cake-making competitions, fruit arranging contests, fancy dress parades, sheep and falconry displays, local prisons, Notting Hill carnivals and protest rallies. “The search was the most enjoyable part of the project,” Kane says, “as a piece of modest graffiti or a haystack in the shape of an owl would take us by surprise”.
They believe that folk art in the 21st century encompasses a larger ambit — it is influenced by technology, pop culture, politics and urban legends. Photos of the crop signs, cutouts of South Park characters across a ticket counter or a model house created by a television enthusiast based on the Brit soap opera, Coronation Street, are some examples. “This is creativity in its most honest form. Human creativity is often all around us, but sometimes you have to actively look for it to appreciate it properly,” adds Kane.
If an item doesn’t amuse you, the anecdote behind it certainly will. The clown bob heads, for instance, displayed at the Clowns Gallery, London, are the method for copyrighting each clown’s make-up. Or the makeshift tattoo guns made by prisoners in England show how to build a tattoo gun from items allowed inside a prison.
The exhibition that opened in London almost a decade ago has received mixed reactions. “Art experts thought we were somehow polluting the spaces we were exhibiting in. Maybe we were, but for us, that was a good thing,” says Kane, who stopped the project a few years ago, as its scope was limitless and he ran the danger of it taking over their lives.
Bringing the show to India, a country rich in folk art, is as audacious as the project itself, but Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, Managing Trustee and Honorary Director of Bhau Daji Lad Museum, thinks it fits in. She says, “This exhibition speaks so much of what the museum represents. Whenever a community gets together and does something different, it’s exciting. “Folk Archive” is a quirky and humorous documentation of everything quintessentially British, yet not spoken about. And most importantly, it is contemporary.”
The exhibition is on a three-city tour with the British Council and will visit Kolkata and Delhi after its Mumbai run.