By Saara Jaffrey-Roberts; Pics by Damon Hope
Art Nouveau is doing something different in Brixton. With firm principles rooted in community, art and food, the creative space on Atlantic Road engages local people in new creative, craft, and gastronomic experiences. With its eclectic and changing nature, I wanted to know exactly how the space works.
I meet up with Betty Mahari at Art Nouveau with her two children, six and five, grinning at her ankles. Originally from Eritrea, Betty has been living in Brixton for nine years. She independently set up Art Nouveau in October 2012. Since then, it has been providing a valuable platform for artists and being host to a rich mix of culinary events.
Located right in the middle of Brixton, Art Nouveau is recognizable for its Art Deco shopfront. It currently functions as a hire-able pop-up space, and has been used in recent months as gallery for artists, as various different restaurants, a clothes shop space, and a place for workshops.
“It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is I’m trying to do… people don’t often get it…” Betty says smiling slightly, when I ask how she would define the space. “The best way to describe it is as a hub. It is a hub for people to meet up, either for creative or food purposes, or as space to put on events or workshops that support young and/or vulnerable groups. It is just a space to do things and to make new things happen”
With the noticeable, and growing, lack of community-led space in London, Art Nouveau is all about filling that gap.
The pop-up system works quite simply: if you have a gastronomic or art-related event in mind, you can hire out Art Nouveau. You can do this either independently and organize everything yourself, or you can work with Betty. If you choose to work with her, she can serve food and drinks, which can include her speciality: traditionally prepared Ethiopian coffee.
“We have had such a diverse range of supper clubs already, with cuisine from Mauritius, Jamaica, Palestine, Ethiopia, vegan and vegetarian, ‘soul food’ from Alabama and most recently, a David Bowie inspired theme. All ideas are welcome here.”
Art Nouveau keeps you on your toes – it keeps changing. “With each pop-up we have here, the space constantly evolves. Each group that uses it leaves their mark on the place”
So how did such a brave enterprise come about? Betty used to work at The Brick Box– another space dedicated to creating open arts spaces – and it was there that the process began.
“At The Brick Box I started working with arts and crafts-something I had never done before. It gave me a confidence, and I wanted to share what I had learnt and gained with other people. I met so many new people. It changed my life, and I wanted to help change others, too”
“While working with them [Brick Box] I set up my own project. We made a hidmo, which is like a hut, out of everything that we could find in The Brick Box courtyard. There we served Ethiopian coffee and cuisine. This gave me the idea to set up my own permanent space which was part arts, part food, part community- and Art Nouveau was born.
During the first four months, Betty worked alongside a group of local artists known as SILK WORM. Together they put on an art exhibition called ‘Say it Again’, and also held film screenings showcasing the work of unknown filmmakers.
“The artists created a gallery space whilst showing the films of other creatives, it was like a multi-arts project. Everything we did during this time was free and art related.”
Rather than paying contractors, artists themselves made the space. Betty invited artists to help with manual labor, such as taking off lino and painting the walls. In return the artists could exhibit their work for a weekend, completely free. That way, through this skill-share, Art Nouveau was literally built as an arts community space.
“It was great, because it meant that the artists who worked here loved the space, and I loved them being there. It means a lot more when something is created by people that believe in what they’re doing.
I ask Betty what her long term plans, in a changing Brixton, where is Art Nouveau going? “Well….despite the charm of the ever-changing pop-up nature of the place, I would like to turn the upstairs space into a permanent Ethiopian coffee shop and restaurant, and keep the downstairs basement as a workshop and gallery space.
“That was my original concept, and my dream… but it all depends on funding you see… it isn’t easy, but we’re doing the best we can”
That’s the catch- Art Nouveau isn’t funded by anybody, it just relies on people, passion and community energy. So this is a call to anybody who believes in skill sharing, in art, in local enterprise and in creative thinking: get involved, pop down, say hello, have an idea and share it. You never know who what connections you might make and what might happen.
If you are an artist, or are simply interested in the innovative power which this extraordinary space is fuelled by, you can get involved. Betty is looking for people to help with the manual labor of the downstairs basement, and in return, the opportunity to exhibit your work in Brixton free of charge.
If you would like to get involved, and/or you are interested in hiring out the space, you can e-mail Art Nouveau on firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow @bmahari for updates