Keith Haring, Belfast, music videos, and AC Milan combined in October’s Nicer Tuesdays


If you were unable to make it down to Nicer Tuesdays at Oval Space last night, we’re sorry to say you missed a good’un. Full of breadth in terms of creativity and topics, we heard from interior design duo Joana Filipe and James Mason, Irish photographer Enda Bowe, filmmaker Meji Alabi and graphic design powerhouses DixonBaxi.

As each took to the stage, they opened up about the inner workings of some major projects. Starting with Joana and James, we heard what it takes to translate Keith Haring’s work and 1980s New York City into a compelling exhibition, several touching stories about youth culture on either side of Belfast’s Peace Wall, the work that goes into making a blockbuster music vid (all 23 hours of it), and the responsibility you feel when redesigning the identity of AC Milan, a club with 400 million fans worldwide.

By using colour and material, Liverpool can feel a lot like New York

When Joana Filipe and James Mason were asked to pitch for the exhibition design of Tate Liverpool’s upcoming Keith Haring exhibition, it’s fair to say they were in a somewhat precarious position. Having previously functioned as separate studios (although collaborating on a regular basis) they had recently decided to join forces as Interestingprojects but rising rent had forced them out of their studio and they didn’t have any work lined up. “It was a really great way to start a business,” they joked. So when the Keith Haring brief came in, the pair figured they had nothing to lose and set about creating a proposal that didn’t hold back.

Firstly, they wanted to understand the backdrop to Haring’s work – what was going on in New York at the time? What were people listening to, what were their lives like, what did the city look like? “To solve this problem,” they told us, “we cranked up the speakers with 1980s hip-hop music and immersed ourselves in culture.” What they discovered was a city on its knees: financially, New York was an absolute mess. Its police force was on strike, there was a crack epidemic, and living conditions for its inhabitants were poor. Conversely, as is the norm, this situation fuelled one of the world’s most exciting underground music and art scenes, and its this context, the meeting of these two worlds in which Keith Haring’s work emerged. And the artist’s portfolio very much reflects this, featuring performative pop-art pieces alongside those with a social activist stance. What’s more, he was an artist who drew everywhere, rejecting the western notion of a canvas and drawing on car bonnets, walls, subways trains, and anything else he stumbled upon.

By combining all of these elements, Joana and James created a space which embodies the spirit of New York without making explicit or overt references, like recreating Haring’s studio for example. “The intention of the space wasn’t to be a gimmick,” they explained. “We just wanted to bring the city of New York into this space.” Wherever the pieces featured some form of activism, they chose to present them in open spaces with high ceilings, mimicking the content in which they would have originally been shown. For the more performative, experimental pieces, however, they created much more enclosed spaces with low ceilings, giving the impression that you were entering a basement club.

Throughout the space, colour and material became incredibly important as well and the duo was given free rein by Tate to experiment with this. Corrugated iron in combination with bold red, blue and yellow therefore reflect Haring’s colour palette and unorthodox canvases while respecting his work and not overpowering it. Finally, the duo’s darkroom can’t go unmentioned. In this space, they created an ode to an actual Haring exhibition in which he recreated a nightclub within a gallery to show his neon works. Their modern-day version sees bright stripes adorning the wall as Haring’s neon paintings glow under UV lights. It’s a playful and contemporary solution to presenting the work of the much-loved artist in which the celebratory and empowering presence of his work takes centre stage.

Photography is a way to remind us we’re all human

Irish photographer Enda Bowe was the second speaker to take to stage last night, and one that left everyone with a lot to think about. Currently nominated for the prestigious Taylor Wessing prize for the second year running, his series are novelistic and cinematic, concerned with people and their emotional journeys. “Also what really goes through my work is the search for hope in everyday life,” he told us. “My biggest inspiration is the ordinary things we do.”

It’s these ideas which, six years ago, led him to Belfast. While Enda was at university in the 90s, Northern Ireland was plagued by the Troubles but by 2012-13, it had fallen out of the public eye and headlines. As a photographer fascinated by “ordinary things”, the city, therefore, became the perfect subject.

“One of the things I didn’t like when I was growing up is asking where you’re from and making up their mind about you,” he remarked, and Belfast is a city obsessed with this question. Your street, your family name, even what you wear can determine whether you’re a Unionist or a Nationalist and these factors still dramatically segregate communities on either side of the Peace Wall. In light of this situation, Enda set about documenting young people on either side of the Wall (which in some areas in higher than the Berlin Wall ever was) in a manner devoid of any direct references to location or political standing, highlighting the unifying humanity that exists in the city’s younger generations.

Titled Love’s Fire Song, the resulting series centres around the bonfires that take place on 12th July every year. Enda continued to tell story after story as he flicked through beautiful image and beautiful image. There was one of Jim who owns the budgie shop, Rocket, a young fella who made sure no one gave Enda any hassle and countless other portraits of strangers who are now friends of Enda’s. Each portrait is as tender as the last and features subtle references to the city’s social and political issues, like the red, white and blue of young girl’s T-shirt, or the red and white of a brick house. Littered throughout the series are breathtaking landscape shots, like of a gradient sky of yellow and purple for example. These, Enda explained, only further the work’s concept as the overwhelming beauty of these scenes really do remind us that we’re all same.

After allowing us into the stories that make up several of this monumental series’ images, Enda left us with a reminder: the camera is a vehicle through which to engage with people you would never normally be able to, “it’s a gift, a blessing,” he added. By using the camera, we can break down any preconceived ideas we may have about each other and show that there is “as much beauty in our lives and as anyone else’s.”

Monkeys need stylists too

Opening with an image of “a wild young Meji” – a photograph of himself as a young child, dressed in a suit – filmmaker Meji Alabi’s talk let us behind the scenes of a huge music video shoot. Produced on a 23-hour day, the world Meji created for Tiwa Savage’s 49-99 is an ode to Africa, in particular, Nigeria, and a chance to place a strong woman at the heart of many typically male-dominated African scenes.

Before he launched into this project though, Meji gave us a bit of background information on himself. Having studied accounting and finance in university and shooting photography part-time on the side, he only started working with film when he got requests to shoot video. He quickly discovered an aptitude and love for the medium however and it became his sole output. Through his work, which often takes the form of music videos for incredible African artists like Burna Boy, Wizkid and Davido, he explores his fascinate with culture. “My interest in people and culture comes from my diverse upbringing,” he told us. Although his parents are Nigerian, Meji grew up between London, Houston, Texas and the Caribbean and so sees the world from a unique perspective. Through filmmaking, he continued, especially projects likes 49-99 “I returned to Nigeria… I felt like I had a duty of care with the culture to present it in the right way.”

49-99 wholly encapsulates these ideas, taken from a term Fela Kuti coined and which represents many Nigerians’ outlook on life. Referencing how a bus says it seats 49 people but will often actually also have 99 people standing, the saying means “smiling through suffering”, keeping a positive outlook even when things aren’t going well. For the video itself, Meji created a world in which Tiwa is running the show. The video was shot in an old disused railway station in Lagos, it travels through several scenes which all make reference to Nigeria’s transport, art and people. Starting in a boxing ring, we see her sat at a sewing machine, posing with friends, standing on top of buses and leading a okay gang. “Theres never really women in control of [okadas],” Meji added. “Wouldn’t it be cool if Tiwa was the leader of gang?” In every situation, Meji’s attention to detail is paramount; small details which we had all missed (despite watching the video several times) were explained – the colour of the trains, for example, reference the Nigerian flag and, in the opening scene, the monkey on Tiwa’s shoulder is actually wearing the same jacket as her. Nothing short of incredible.

Dreams (read: dream briefs) really do come true

Simon Dixon and Aporva Baxi met 25 years ago and bonded over a love of film and design, in particular, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It follows then that the pair would decide to set up their collaborative studio in that 2001, calling it DixonBaxi. Today, its an established name in the world of graphic design and branding reaching 3 billion people with its international work.

For last night’s Nicer Tuesdays, Simon and Aporva talked us through an absolute dream brief: a refresh of AC Milan’s visual identity. A studio which prides itself of being brave, being restlessly creative, on the front foot and always in beta, Simon, Aporva and the rest of their talented team rose to the challenge of creating something which resonates with 400 million fans worldwide, and which respects the 120-year heritage of the club. No mean feat, especially when you consider they had a very tight deadline. “The client said: we’re running and now you’re running with us,” Simon and Aporva told us. “On our side, it was about creating a team with military precision.”

The basis of the identity relied on clever and rousing copywriting, introducing mantras like “From Milan, to the world” and “Together, we the many”. By creating these statements, they extracted what makes AC Milan so powerful and unique and shared that explicitly. In turn, it’s not just a visual identity but an ecosystem and, most importantly, a story. One of the big decisions they made was to not change the club’s badge. “If you’re rebranding a company, the convention is to change the logo,” they began, but in the case of AC Milan, “What you do is that you crush that history.” Instead, they took its iconic oval and used it as a visual motif across everything: from how photography is framed, the motion design of social assets, to the merchandise and even typesetting on posters. Its an overlapping design language and iconography create a “halo effect” for AC Milan. “It’s such a deceptively simple system,” they stated. “But there’s a great variety in it.”

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