What must individuals do and value in order to bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate society?
How can public works of art memorialise the history, struggles, and triumphs of the individuals and groups that make up our communities and be used as a form of civic participation?
Students will analyse a segment of the Battle of Cable Street mural and reflect on the role of public art to commemorate, educate, and build community.
In the last two class periods, students learned about the Battle of Cable Street by listening to and reading first-hand testimonies of individuals who recalled demonstrating against fascist Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts when they attempted to march into London’s East End on 4th October 1936. In this lesson, students will explore a related story in Cable Street’s history that started in the 1970s when artist Dave Binnington began researching and creating a 3,500 square foot mural on the side of St. Georges Town Hall commemorating the historic Battle of Cable Street and the area’s immigration story. Although Binnington conceived of the mural’s initial design, he abandoned the project in 1982 after it was vandalised with racist slogans, and it was finished in 1983 only to be vandalised again on other occasions in the early 1990s. To introduce this lesson about the artist’s battle to create and preserve the Cable Street mural, students will reflect on the public street art and murals that they may have seen in their own neighbourhoods and schools before doing a close analysis of a large section of the Cable Street mural. They will then read about the mural’s turbulent history, as well as the racism and violence that the East End’s Bengali community has faced since the 1970s and consider how it connects to current racial tension and heightened Islamophobia. The lesson ends with a discussion about the role of art in politics and how art can serve as a means of taking action in the face of injustice.
Work on the Cable Street mural began in 1976 when artist Dave Binnington, supported by an Arts Council grant, started to research the 1936 Battle of Cable Street and interview local residents to learn about the historic demonstration to protest against Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists’ (BUF) march through London’s East End. In addition to reviewing news articles and footage of the event, Binnington invited local community members to contribute their memories, as well as drawings and writings, and a number of them appear on the finished mural. After securing additional funding, Binnington began painting the mural onto the 3,500 square foot wall of St. George’s Town Hall in late 1979. While he originally hoped to finish the project by October the following year, technical issues delayed the project, and then on 23rd May 1982, six-foot-high racist slogans, such as “Rights for Whites,” were spray painted onto the mural, and Binnington resigned from the project.1
Paul Butler, who had been hired by Binnington to design and work on the bottom section of the mural, recruited two other artists, Ray Walker and Desmond Rochfort, and together they completed the project. While Binnington’s original vision called for a fisheye lens, which Butler, Walker, and Rochfort preserved in the top section, the remaining sections of the mural had to be sandblasted and reprimed to remove the vandal’s graffiti. From there, the three artists carried out additional research and each completed a section of the wall: Walker painted the left, Butler the centre, and Rochfort the right. The three artists completed the mural in March 1983; however, it was vandalised on other occasions, most drastically in June 1993 when it was destroyed with paint bombs while Butler was working on a restoration of the mural.2 The vandals also threatened Butler, pouring paint on his car and slashing the tyres; he required police support to guard the scaffold while he worked to complete the restoration. Since that time, the mural has not suffered further damage, and Paul Butler did another restoration in 2011, sealing the mural to the wall and re-painting areas that had faded with time.3
Now visitors can learn about the Battle of Cable Street by visiting this vibrant mural in Shadwell. The mural depicts aspects of the confrontation that students studied in the previous lesson, including altercations between protesters and mounted police, Communist and Labour Party banners, a hand tossing marbles, debris flying from second-floor windows, and homemade barricades of boards, mattresses, and the wheels of an overturned truck. Individuals painted in the lower left of the mural reflect the East End’s changing demographic, which now includes a large Bengali population and ties their story of facing racism and violence in their community to that of Jews in the 1930s.