Love and Colour, by Jamie Holman
It’s hard not to see the world in colour. Despite the feeling that black and white films and news clips give us about the past, colour has always defined us, and continues to do so. I think of course about football first, and how much of our culture, shared histories and identity can be shaped by a shirt in either blue and white or claret and blue. In red or pale blue, in green hoops or royal blue; it goes on and on, defining rival towns, (or even the same town) with each side draped in colours, the colours telling us of the differences, we have with our neighbours. Those who are often so close, but so far away, and despite the fact that my brother won’t ever go to Burnley, in some instances colours become serious signifiers. Kirb stones painted in red, white and blue or orange, white and green in Northern Ireland tell you immediately about the politics, culture and beliefs of that particular street. People will dig trenches, drop bombs and charge to their certain deaths for a piece of coloured cloth, blowing in the breeze. The world is divided by colour, and no-where is that more apparent than on maps.
I’ve been working with the industrial heritage of Lancashire, and in particular Blackburn, for the past two years. I started on this work after a commission for the National festival of Making in 2017. During that commission, I encountered the legacy of the industrial revolution and of the British Empire, particularly as it declined and the legacy left, and still felt in towns like Blackburn to this day. Once I got beyond the flat caps and cobbled street nostalgia, I found poetry in Blackburn slums, and words spoken, sung and written in the dialect of the time. A poetry of the working class, at a time when poetry was for the rich. Poetry for the people, by the people. William Billington, the Blackburn poet writing ‘Blackburn to the fore!’ in 1875, proud of the town he called home, his football team and the new ideas surrounding him; despite a life long hatred of working in the mills. I found paintings by those who never had the luxury of education, or formal classes. James Sharples painting ‘The Forge’ (hanging in Blackburn Museum) was made while he was still a teenager in an iron forge. He started work at 5 am so got up at 3 am to paint. Every day. Every fucking day. That’s hardcore by anyone’s standards. I can’t explain the painting anymore than I can explain William Billington’s gift of words. They could just do it, they had no choice and they couldn’t be kept down. They weren’t the only ones, in the town centre Mitchel and Kenyon were inventing cinema and the mills of Blackburn and Darwen sent cloth across the globe. Perhaps because of the Mitchel and Kenyon films, we think of these people in black and white, but their words, paintings and printed cloth tell us otherwise; and the globe they shipped their work to, the world that was changing around them, was split by colour.
Empire maps show us in a simple short hand, how much of the globe the British Empire covered. The Empire is often in pink, with the rest of the world in yellow. The actual percentage is 25%, but the way the maps are presented, it appears that half the world was the British Empire, with the rest of the world in Yellow. I became obsessed with this, and other aspects of our Empire legacy, as I researched the things that make us who we are now, have been before, and may yet become.
This research overlaps the formation of the football league with the cotton famine, the wars in Europe with the constant migration and movement of people; from the vile slave ships of Lancaster, to the exodus from the Ireland of my great grandparents, to the arrival of South Asian communities and our imminent exit from a Europe we united, even as our Empire declined. All of these events can be told in colour, at best in flags and football shirts, at worse in the legacy of those who were kidnapped and murdered for the colour of their skin. Colour continues to simplify complex propositions, brown passports bad/Blue passports good. Red is danger/anger (or Liverpool – which is worse) black is bad / white is good,
while gold is – well gold. The stuff in the back of the coach in The Italian Job. It’s so valuable that just the word is enough. Beyond that, the only real value colours have is in the meanings we invest in them. I recently made a sculpture out of steel, called ‘Colony’. It was about the Empire maps and the complex histories behind two colours. Before I made it, I made a small study. Two small pieces of steel, one pink, one yellow and I gave them to my friends on their wedding day. I framed them and re worked the idea for them. This time it was still a map of the world, but a world with only them in it. The only map they would need. Love and colour, a good combination. Complex emotions, told simply.