Meeting Ground: Gus Casely-Hayford & Jayden Ali
Episode 1: The importance of art, spaces and community in east London.
East London is a meeting point of cultures, generations and communities. Known as the creative and artistic part of London, the area is now the subject of a new series called Meeting Ground.
Brought to you in partnership with V&A East, Meeting Ground tells the stories of preservation, progression and identity from those that are living, working or making in east London. Comprised of three chapters, each instalment brings together two creative individuals working within the same industries to discuss generational divides; confronting the privileges, tensions and changes that have shaped their experiences.
The first episode sees curator, cultural historian and director of V&A East, Gus Casely-Hayford, in conversation with Jayden Ali, a maverick designer and east London native. Both are affiliated with V&A, and come together to talk about east London’s past, present and future. Their conversation walks through the importance of cultural spaces in the city, as well as access to art and community engagement, linking it back to how east London will continue to change for future generations. What is the area growing into? Scroll down to read or listen to their conversation.
Meeting Ground: Gus & Jayden in conversation
00:00 : 00:00
What drew you to east london?
Well, I'm actually an east London interloper. I mean, I'm a south Londoner, but there has always been something about this place. I lived in Washington, DC, for a number of years, but came back for this job. One of the things that lured me back here was east London and the chance of working in this bit of the city. I'm aware of its history, but it's the future that I really was attracted by and the sense that this is the most exciting thing that's happening in Britain at the moment, and I wanted to be a part of that.
Do you sense a difference between an east London and south London spirit?
I think so and particularly as a sense of optimism is in low supply at the moment, but being in east London, you can feel a kind of dynamic energy that's really exciting. It speaks to a history of having a degree of tolerance that is pretty exceptional. That kind of diversity and complexity coming together to yield something really speaks to the possibilities of what a future Britain might look like.
What is special about the area?
When I was starting out, I lucked out and ended up getting two week’s work experience with Allies and Morrison on the Olympic site. That idea of turning nothing into something was a part of the area's spirit; it can be seen through the lo-fi transformation of people turning their bedrooms into recording studios or making something of themselves coming from Bow or from Bethnal Green. There is a language of magic and transformation.
There was always something very special here, not just in terms of the communities, but in terms of place. Listening to you speak reminded me of Dickens walking in exactly this area in the 1850s. He described it almost in exactly the way that you describe it. Even in the 1850s, this was a place of creative people. This was a place of people who were driving the transformation of London. Sure, quietly, but through their hands, through making – that's one of the things that east London has always been incredibly good at. And I see today, people still doing those same things, using their own resources to be transformational.
What's the spirit of the area and how has it changed?
There is a confidence in the area that comes with proximity to the city. It's always within reach. I grew up on Hackney Road and I could walk to Shoreditch. In Dickens' time, Tower Hamlets was where the heart of London was, so it was never far from the epicentre of where the city was established and the energy that came with that.
The thing that I felt about east London is that the centre of London feels far away, but it doesn't feel like people here sense that they're missing something. East London is their centre of gravity.
You could feel that when I was young. Some of that confidence existed in people through their artistic pursuits. If you go back to that notion of grime, the gravitational pull was here. Even though there were people doing their thing over there [in the city], we had an attitude of ‘you know where to find us’.
That permeated down into the younger generations. I remember it being so intoxicating – that feeling of confidence that you could turn up in the youth centre and people would be MCing or DJing. You would feel like you're at the centre.
How did you access art and institutions growing up?
Can I wax lyrical about this for a moment? This is my second job with the V&A, but the Museum of Childhood [now Young V&A, reopening in 2023] as an institution has been in my life since I was born. It was the place my mum would take me and somewhere that was open to us on rainy days. Up to a certain age, it works. You go down and you put your 20p in the model railway, and it zooms around the room; that's just what you want. But as you get a little bit older, you start to realise it's not for you. You don't see yourself recognised in any of the toys. It doesn't reflect any of your lived experience, it doesn't reflect any of your childhood experience.
There are formative years in terms of this kind of making culture, and when you start to make with your hands. I commandeered a very small room in my block that turned it into a music studio, where I made films and music – and I still make that stuff today.
There were also other smaller institutions that ensured that the museum world still existed in my life. I worked at the Wilkinson Gallery on Vyner Street, and these were the days when First Thursdays were entry points. You would go there for the free booze, even if you didn't go there for the art. And that would be your entry point into this world.
Growing up, museums didn't feel for me because I don't think I wanted to spend my own spare time in a space where I didn't know that I would be welcome. At V&A East, at least for me, one of my biggest drives is to make our spaces feel completely comfortable.
How do you think institutions can make art more accessible?
I want people to be able to come into our spaces and to immediately feel that the space will flex around them. We need to make the actual institution porous enough so that it almost feels like it's invisible.
One of the things I've been very keen on doing is to take our collections out into places that are closer to where people live. I've made the commitment to visit every single secondary school in the four boroughs that surround the museum and talk to young people.
For me, growing up, culture was something that I experienced in our living room with my family. It was through talking with my siblings, my brother – who was an amazing artist, drawing; it was my sister, who was an amazing writer, reading out her stories. It was through a lens of personal relationships, familial relationships, that I built a love of culture. I would love that sense of V&A East to feel like it is an extended family, a space within which you can come and feel comfortable.
How does a museum engage with individuals that aren’t connected to the arts or have grown up with access to art?
It was nice to hear about your home life and it sounds like you were surrounded by the arts and artists. In contrast I don't think I was necessarily surrounded by the arts. My mum is a great maker, but she was busy bringing up two boys by herself. It took me a long time to start accumulating the knowledge or language to be able to resonate and have a conversation with objects and the arts.
I think we all have collections of things that we treasure, and that we hold in some esteem, even if it's our wardrobes. The beauty of the V&A is [its] collection, it's a series of domestic objects that were probably made for practical reasons, but became most valued because of what they meant to someone. That's where museums become powerful, in the way in which they hold stories of people. I think we can all relate to that. Even if we don't have massively valuable personal collections, we can understand how things become valuable because of the memories connected to them.
Head to V&A East to find out more about their new site and plans for the future.