You were born in London, but your parents are from Ghana. When did they come to the UK?
In the Sixties, at a time of post-war regeneration. They were encouraged to come over and do jobs that nobody wanted to do here.
We’ve just had a journey on the 319 bus from Streatham Hill in south London to Sloane Square. Is this a journey that you make often?
Why do you waste forty or fifty minutes riding a bus?
It’s something I just always did. I loved getting the bus; I loved the time it gave me to think. There were practical reasons initially; you could get a bus pass for just a few pounds when I was younger. There used to be a bus route from near where I lived in south London all the way to Trafalgar Square. I liked that route because it went via interesting places, through Brixton, Kennington, Westminster and then over the bridge to Whitehall.
Were those spots points of inspiration?
Maybe in some ways. My mind used to travel with the journey, if you know what I mean. It was a good way to think. It was also a way of getting to know London.
Was it helpful in terms of your art?
Not directly when I was still at school.
In the London I grew up in, you had pockets of different social groups in every area. It always felt like you could wander anywhere
When did your mind fully open to a visual take on life that would be translated into art?
That time was probably formative in the sense that there are things you store up and maybe use later. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I had no plans for this.
Having lived most of your life in south London, do you feel that the Thames acts as a kind of social barrier?
I don’t know. Each area is so mixed, or has been in the past; each area has been a combination of social classes. That’s less and less the case because pricing is pushing people out of London. In the London I grew up in, you had pockets of different social groups in every area. It always felt like you could wander anywhere. Everywhere was mixed.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at the end of the 319 bus route, in front of the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. The artist, who has travelled the same route since childhood, enjoys sitting on the bus and doing ‘a lot of thinking’, she says.
No neighbourhood was closed off socially?
Not really. There were areas that were more attractive than others to spend time in, but I never felt like anywhere was particularly off limits. I don’t know about now. I suppose over time it has gotten more and more divided.
Has London changed beyond recognition, do you think?
There’s something of that mixture that gets lost, something of that social identity, particularly in terms of housing.
So who owns London now?
I still feel like I own a part of it. It’s home for me; it’s always going to be.
Has the fact that your parents are African and that you are a born Londoner made a palpable difference to your way of seeing?
I heard it put nicely recently in a programme on August Wilson, who said something about what he called ‘blood memory’ — which is about how everything about your life experience, including your heritage, where you’ve come from, who’s raised you, how you were raised — all of those things influence the way that you think about everything. You don’t necessarily need to identify with one thing or another; it’s just there.
So even if you weren’t born in a particular town or village, the genes carry a sense of origins in some form or other?
I believe so. I like this idea of blood memory being the thing. I think it was really about people being lazy sometimes in the way that they want to position you. It does get quite frustrating because you can be more than one thing, think about more than one thing, talk about more than one thing.
How did you decide to live where you do now?
When I was looking for my flat, Streatham was one of the only places I could afford in London. I wanted to be south and close to my family. There was a funny moment when I realised that there was this little triangular area where my mum used to get off one bus, change and then get on the 319. I don’t know if that held a sort of significance somehow. Plus there were all these other bus routes going through there that were significant to places where my parents worked or where my cousin used to work. There were all these funny little associations I had with different bus routes going to different places. The 319 became, strangely, an important one because I was working on the King’s Road and used to get that bus everyday. Different jobs I have had all seem to be on that route somewhere.
Yiadom-Boakye at work in her small Bethnal Green studio. ‘I generally get to my studio on the train or Tube, but if I get on a bus, it’s a treat,’ she confesses. Her oeuvre is all to do with ordinary people doing ordinary things — like taking the bus.
Could you give an example of the route’s significance with reference to the work that you did?
There was the sports shop on the King’s Road, and around that time I worked with a children’s art group which had many sites around Wandsworth, Clapham and Balham. The 319 was the route I used to take to some of those sites. I find the route beautiful, but I don’t expect anyone else to. I find it beautiful because of the personal associations I have with it.
When the bus stops at Sloane Square and you get off, do you sense a difference in place, or atmosphere, or ambience, or social tenor?
Oh yeah. But a lot of people will have come from places along the route and they get off at Sloane Square too. It’s not like one type of person gets on at the beginning and then gets off before they get to Sloane Square. I often wonder where people are going to get off. It’s just another one of my nerdy bus things! I often think about following someone’s route …
Have you ever turned that idea into a piece of writing?
I have. But again, these are the types of thoughts I have on the bus. You aren’t necessarily watching people, but you become aware of people.
You become a sort of social wanderer…
Yeah. And then you get surprised sometimes when you see someone getting off. You think, Oh! I didn’t think they were going there, doesn’t look like their kind of place.
The red bus is so emblematic of London. With the way it courses through the veins of the city, it’s representative of the full range of urban social, physical, mental, emotional and psychological life, isn’t it? Sometimes of violence as well. Does that analogy work for London, do you think?
Yeah. If you think of the routes as veins, and of life-blood going through them, those things that are keeping everything moving and alive somehow… Whenever I’m away, I miss them. It’s an amazing service.
You can cover the whole city by bus.
It’s a very egalitarian construct.
Definitely. I know people who won’t travel any other way, and I know people who won’t get on the bus. For me it’s always felt very comforting.
London Burning: Portraits from a Creative City, Author & Editor Hossein Amirsadeghi, Executive Editor: Maryam Eisler, is published by Thames & Hudson on 19 October 2015, priced £58 (hardback). All images are copyright Transglobe Publishing.
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