Aksana: Nilupa, it’s been a minute since our last interview! What have you been up to?
Nilupa: It’s been a while hasn’t it? It’s been a busy semester lecturing, especially since the change of being in person again post-Covid online lecturing the majority of last year. A personal achievement is making it through the first year of my MA while lecturing and freelancing all at once. I also wrapped up my solo show over at the MAC which has honestly been 2 years in the making. It’s been extremely humbling to see it come together and the way it’s received by visitors. I also recently sat on a panel talking about what brings me joy and shanti (peace in Bangla). It really rooted you into considering how we keep our mental health at ease through the smaller, yet important, activities. Like I was gifted a Van Gogh (fan girl) embroidery pattern for my birthday which I told myself I will do in my holidays, and it’s currently staring at me feeling neglected. Speaking of, what have you been up to and what’s recently brought you joy and shanti?
Aksana: So besides doing other freelancing bits, my November was just a mad one because it’s the birthday month for us Khans. That was joyful! Plus I took time off and went to Devon and then to my family’s for my birthday. The digital detox gave me shanti. It’s helped with rebalancing work and life, and my attitude has lingered into December. Speaking of our jobs, how would you describe what we’ve been up to with China Plate?
Nilupa: We’ve come a long way from the first bus pilot. The one initial bus stop has now become a further 8 bus stops which has been amazing! We’ve lined up some workshops over November-January (Thanks to you and Izzy) where I go in and do sessions around collaging to use for our final designs. Each bus stop will in some way pay homage to the community group, in some cases the bus stops located near those spaces.
One of the first sessions was with South and City College Birmingham, where I worked with a group of students. We spoke about Soho Road, what we liked, the spaces we visited- A LOT OF FOOD- and then created a collage which I know they are super excited to see in the space. The second set of workshops were with Holyhead School which had to be done online due to the new government guidelines. The students were very engaged and excited which did help with being delivered virtually. How have you found securing these workshops, what’s been your favorite part of it but also what you found most challenging to navigate?
Aksana: I honestly think I’ve just been a real Chatty Patty. I’ve been walking up and down the road, talking about On Our Way to a lot of people, and I’m become the queen of voice notes. This project is community led and that means being patient with other people’s time. Your priority doesn’t mean it’s theirs, everyone has different levels of availability, and we are all watching the news on what COVID guidelines mean for our various situations. So you can have the prettiest project plan in the beginning, but that goes out of the window. I think one of the bigger challenges is how we navigate COVID, the digital divide, and the general fatigue. That being said, my favourite part of On Our Way has been getting to know people better. I’ve definitely learnt a lot about the participants we have onboard – from the phone conversations and the in-person meetings too. It makes the workshops more tailored to each group, and that feels nourishing. When talking to community groups, one of the questions I do get asked is, why is the artwork for the bus stop made through collages?
Nilupa: I found collaging to be a fun activity which holds a lot of relevance in Art history as a very important and powerful tool to make a comment on the world we live in. The sessions have always been planned with this intention to educate a group of people about collage history, more specifically photomontages. But also fun. No one likes to come and make work under this forced pretence and feel this pressure to produce. I wanted it to be a very fun environment where we talk about ourselves, our spaces and also what we want to say about the world and Soho Road. I feel that with collaging, it’s a practice that doesn’t have a right or wrong way. Whereas with drawing or painting, because we see so much of it in mainstream Art, everyone has an opinion on how it should look. I didn’t once hear someone say that the piece they were making looked ‘wrong’ in any way. Plus, I always enjoy comparing the Dada Movement images of WW2 to the current political sphere.
Aksana: Well, I love how flexible and democratic collaging is. Since this project is happening in a COVID era, what do you think has been the biggest unlearning for the creative industries on the whole?
Nilupa: Even as I say this, the rules on what is allowed and restricted is constantly changing and I want to say the creative world has learnt, in some way, to adapt with the changes. We for one started our contingency plan quite early which benefited us. Things like preparing packs in advance worked a treat, which for me has been a continuation from this time last year. Again, accessibility of not assuming participants will always have the equipment at hand. I didn’t want anyone to not be able to participate for that reason. As a Producer, how have you found working around so many groups and their needs, whilst also staying as close to the needs of the project?
Aksana: I feel like I’m a sponge. It means that I am holding a lot of conversations in my head. It’s knowing when to activate certain conversations so I can kick start the next thing to push the project along. So I’m learning a lot about the different 8 groups for each bus stop. They have shown that ‘safety’ is subjective. For example, it might sound obvious but asking people to think about their home and community isn’t always a positive experience, and we need to be prepared for that. When that has happened, it means needing to work things out by asking people open questions, and coming to solutions together. I think the biggest thing about being accommodating is letting go of the idea that you need to look like a constant expert in something because it just prevents you from regularly checking in on your own biases. If I don’t know something, I won’t give a half-hearted answer. I will say “I don’t know, but let me get back to you.” So I’m glad that this project takes a village because I can ask people for help and advice. What can people look forward to in the new year with On Our Way?
Nilupa: It’s going to be BIG. This is not a small project where you come and make work and then leave when it’s done. We have already set milestones – and the bus stops themselves are getting upgraded. That doesn’t just happen and it did because of this project. So this project will have a life long after it’s done and we have gone. We have seen the level of gratitude that it has already brought so I’m extremely excited to see the big bang in 2022.
Aksana: Yes!! And watch out for our volunteer call outs too! We will be recruiting for volunteers for to create three different bus stop galleries in the new year.
Nilupa: It’s going to be very Instagramable and I might just start my own selfies hashtag. Do you see us starting a whole movement?
Aksana: I hope that we do! I hope that theatre, museums, and galleries ask themselves “how much is the co-creation model a reflection of pre-pandemic ideals?” It’s really challenging to implement it securely in our COVID era as not everyone has access to the internet or secure devices. I’m still figuring it out. I also hope that we get more arts projects which work with public transport! This project connects arts companies, charities, private entities, and public services together. That’s why we have a steering group made up of our partners. We share our learnings with one another and it’s worked – it’s led to the replacement of old bus stops on Soho Road. But let me get off my soapbox, but what’s the plan for Christmas?
Nilupa: Remember that embroidery piece I said? That’s in the list. I have always dreamt of a wall of art in my home so lets just say we have the Art before the home- call it an incentive to save for a house. I also want to use up the monument of thread currently in my studio to make some hangings out of- might even go into selling wall hanging, it’s where all the dollars are right now. My parents have their 27th anniversary on Christmas Day and I am planning a party that’s currently only in my head so we have some work to do there (luckily they won’t read this unless I send them it). How about you, what’s your plans over the break?
Aksana: Uncle and Aunty – if you’re reading this, happy anniversary! But yeah – Christmas holiday is me carbo loading to my heart’s content, getting heart burn (since that’s a thing now after my birthday), and sleep. I hope it’s a restorative break for everyone before our collective 2022 madness.