Mela Monument

Mela Monument workshop, John Hansard Gallery, 2024. Photo: Nosa Malcolm

Celebrating South Asian arts, culture, and community contribution, John Hansard Gallery and Art Asia are delighted to present Mela Monument as part of the Southampton Mela Festival.

Mela Monument is a series of new outdoor artworks that have been created by artists Permindar Kaur, Ren Fang Wooldridge and Rabia Raja, inspired by the Southampton Mela Festival.

Involving local people and listening to their views about Mela has been central to this project. In the UK, Mela is one of the most popular forms of festival, celebrating and representing the evolving and rightful existence of the diverse British cultures and communities.

Permindar Kaur, Project Co-ordinator Ratna Jan Bibi and Art Asia spoke with over 160 people at Diwali events in Southampton last autumn, asking questions around a sense of belonging, home and what Mela means to them. They collectively discovered that Mela meant a celebration of culture, community, inclusion and identity to the people of Southampton.

Between March and May 2024, the artists have co-led a series of creative, cross-generational workshops and conversation events at Cantell School, the Women’s Integration Group in Southampton, and at family friendly sessions at John Hansard Gallery. Participants contributed their views, ideas and creative works to shape Mela Monument, sharing their experiences of migration, settlement, and the evolving concept of home which are woven into each artwork.

Permindar Kaur’s artistic practice extends over more than three decades, during which she has become one of Britain’s most innovative artists. Known as much for her deft manipulation of materials including glass, metal and fabric as for her evocative exploration of home, childhood, memory and cultural identity, Kaur’s practice defies categorisation. Kaur comments: “This has been a great opportunity to make an artwork for a public space reflecting on South Asian heritage, notions of home and a place of gathering.”

For Kaur, Mela is about gathering, celebration and making oneself at home. This led her to the idea of making a work with beds and washing lines to say, “this is now our home, where we sleep, and even put out our washing.” On the day of the Southampton Mela Festival, the audience will be able to participate in the making of the work. Using Indian wooden blocks, they can design and print patterns of their choice on the clothes, which will then be hung up, added to the sculpture in the Mela Sculpture Park.

Ren Fang Wooldridge is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice includes painting, printmaking, and sculpture. Clay is a dominant material in her wide-ranging scope of work, drawing on lived experience; from personal narrative to collective subjectivity, with her work intimate yet universal in its relevance. Wooldridge comments: “I am thrilled for the opportunity to engage with the vibrant and diverse community of Southampton in celebrating the Mela festival. My passion lies in promoting accessibility and inclusivity within art, creating work that resonates with and represents the community, particularly for minority and underrepresented groups.”

For the Mela, Wooldridge has made a wooden door left open placed on top of a base of colourful ceramic tiles. Many of these vibrantly coloured tiles have been hand-painted by community groups in Southampton during the co-creation process and by the artist. Wooldridge responded to discussions around ‘home and belonging’, and the work is a celebration of the city’s diverse culture and creativity. It also provokes questions about identities and the migratory journeys shared by many under global social, economic, political, and environmental pressures.

Rabia Raja is a sculptural and photographic artist, specialising in working with industrial materials such as concrete and steel. Her work explores themes of everyday life, Brutalist Architecture, and the built environment. Incorporating found objects with historical and cultural significance, Raja creates sculptures that symbolise the power structures governing the modern world. Raja comments: “I’ve gained invaluable insights into navigating the art world, and facilitating community workshops has ultimately been a rewarding learning experience, forming connections which are important to establish and develop when it comes to public art and the local community. 

For the Mela, Raja’s work celebrates the craft of South Asian pattern-making through collective creation and cultural expression. A wooden structure decorated with a fabric collage tapestry will showcase Indian block printed patterns, created during workshops with Southampton community groups. The space will enclose two ‘incomplete’ chairs facing one another, symbolising a conversation.

Visitors to the Southampton Mela Festival can participate in a pattern-making workshop and add their fabric to the surface, transforming these blank chairs into vibrant displays. The installation reflects those themes of home, belonging and identity, drawn from conversations held during the workshops. It embodies the spirit of community and cultural pride, creating a welcoming space at the Mela, and reflecting the colourful array of traditional garments and the profound sense of identity they represent.

Dahlia Jamil, Chief Executive, Art Asia said: “We are delighted to partner with John Hansard Gallery in this exciting project that will build a lasting legacy for Southampton, not only in regard to improving its public space but recognising the thriving diverse communities that live and create those social stories that connect us all.”

Woodrow Kernohan, Director, John Hansard Gallery said: “Mela Monument is the fruition of multiple partnerships between John Hansard Gallery and Art Asia. We have been thrilled to work with the artists Permindar, Ren and Rabia, in partnership with groups and communities in Southampton as part of our Co-Creating Public Space programme. Southampton’s Mela is a highlight in the cultural calendar of Southampton and the region. We are looking forward to launching these new Mela Monument artworks and celebrating with everyone at the Southampton Mela Festival.”

Southampton Mela Festival takes place on Saturday 13 July 2024 at Hoglands Park, with communities invited to work alongside the artists on the day.

Mela Monument forms part of Co-Creating Public Space, a nationally significant project which aims to give local communities agency to engage with and activate our shared public spaces. Co-Creating Public Space invites communities to creatively engage with artists to rethink the use of the public space in Southampton and beyond. The project is led by John Hansard Gallery, with funding from Arts Council England, Southampton City Council, GO! Southampton and University of Southampton.

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