The starting point for my creative engagement and research into the life of Olive Morris begun in 2017. I had been invited by Mattie Loyce to take part in the198 Contemporary Arts and Learning Voices From The Front Line (VFTFL) project. The project explored Brixton’s heritage through a focus on the political and social history of Railton road which was known for being home to the Caribbean community in the post Windrush period and a site of social uprisings in the 1980’s.
The VFTFL project appealed to me for so many reasons; (1) Being a child of the Windrush Generation born in the U.K. to Jamaican parents who had settled in the Notting Hill area during the late 1950s, I heard first-hand accounts about how members of the Brixton Caribbean community physically supported the fight against racist attacks on Black families who lived in West London (2) the political turbulence of the 1970s and early 1980s formed the backdrop to my childhood (3) I had spent my university years in Brixton during the late 1980s and 1990s learning about Black history (4) Back in 1999, I held one of my first solo exhibitions in the 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, celebrating the style and fashion of women in Jamaican dancehall culture entitled ‘Materialistic Gal’ (5) In light of the ongoing gentrification of Brixton, I was keen to support a project which would honour and raise awareness to those who had fought for equality and justice in the community during the 1980s.
However, my research into the significance of Railton Road, known back in the 1980s as ‘the Frontline’ quickly focused on Olive Morris. I had seen an image of Olive smiling as she scaled the back of building number 121 on the cover of the 1979 Squatters Handbook and was eager to learn more about her. Other iconic images of Olive; holding a megaphone at a rally, walking barefoot whilst holding a placard at a protest march or smiling whilst rocking her distinctive Afro, also had a lasting impression on me. Although Olive travelled nationally and internationally, it was local grassroots activism which she found most impactful. She is reported to have said “My heart will always be in Brixton” and this is why I gave my long running exhibition at Lambeth Town Hall inspired by her activism the same title.
Olive tragically died in 1979 at the age of 27. Initially her extraordinary contribution in the fight against racism, inequality and social injustice had been celebrated, but as Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre’s 2006 project asked ‘Do you remember Olive Morris?’ – her legacy had been in danger of fading away. At the time of being approached to take part in the VFTFL project I had not long made the decision to turn my back on a successful, but highly stressful career in educational leadership and instead, for the sake of my mental wellness revisit my early aspiration to be an artist. I had trodden a well-worn path sadly visited by many of ‘the first Black person’ to gain a position at the top of their chosen field – an early departure from their position due to relentless racism. During my time turning around some of the toughest schools in London and training hundreds of aspiring educators into their first senior leadership roles I had seen a lot, but had been silent due to voluntarily being silenced.
To counteract widespread discrimination prevalent in the English education system during the 1970s, Olive joined forces with others to volunteer at the Abeng Centre which provided supplementary school and youth services for young people in the heart of Brixton. I took strength from her passion and decided to express my voice through my art. In my 2018 submission for the VFTFL exhibition I wrote; “now, more than ever, people are facing various challenges and pressures in their everyday lives. By looking back at the struggles and triumphs Olive Morris experienced during the 1970s and 1980s, I hope that in our present day we can take inspiration from her determined character to feel empowered to bring about positive change… as the physical environment of Brixton continues to change, buildings / gardens once named as Olive Morris sadly no longer exist, it is therefore important that new ways are found to continue to honour her contribution to Brixton in a way which in time can be digitised for future generations to appreciate”.
I posed the question ‘If Morris were alive today, what form would her educational activism take?’. My two abstract paintings Courage: Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision (2018) and Resilience: Transforming teachers and school leader’s mental health provision (2018) responded to this question by picking up and profiling some of the pressing issues young people face in relation to their mental health and wellbeing. Both paintings are deeply personal and merge collage with spontaneous hand script mark-making which I refer to as ‘freestyle calligraffiti’. The process of creating the pieces was emotionally painful, yet therapeutic – I felt relief from the years of frustrations at the injustices I had witnessed and fought against. In the works all colour was stripped away, as were images and through a monotone palette of black, white and grey – I begun to find my voice.
It was not until the opening exhibition night that I realised my art had also given voice to others. I observed from across the room a young person standing mesmerised in front of my painting Courage. There were tears streaming down their face as their eyes roamed around the piece, their lips moved as they read quietly to themselves some of the words which were legible. I cautiously approached them and gently enquired as to what in the painting evoked this emotion. “I’ve never seen what I’ve been experiencing inside on a work of art like this before”. Their eyes moved to the part of the painting where I had copied out references from various published reports into the mental health of young people who identified as LGBTQ. I had written the words in anger; it was comments about the devasting impact of having little access or no support was having on their mental wellbeing. The exchange affirmed for me that Olive’s legacy could still be experienced in a powerful and direct way through art.
It was a year later when Vicky Long and Dawn Butler invited me to exhibit my paintings Courage and Resilience as part of the Lambeth Town Art Programme. At first, I was hesitant due to the sensitive content in the pieces, I wasn’t sure how the pieces would be received in such a public space. Furthermore, Olive Morris House, a short walk away had closed down and was due for redevelopment. I knew there was a need to come up with a new way to continue to honour Olive’s contribution to Brixton, beyond a physical building and in a way which in time could be digitised for future generations to appreciate. It was then that I had the idea to base myself in the foyer of the town hall where I could engage in planned and by chance conversations with staff and visitors about Olive Morris and document as much of the process as possible. I requested there be a collaborative element to my residency, through delivering workshops with local young people, where they could learn about Olive and reflect on the big question I posed at the start of the project ‘If Olive were alive today, what would she say about the mental health of young people? My concept for ‘My heart will always be in Brixton’ was embraced by the Lambeth Town Hall Art Programme team, but before beginning any work I felt it was important to contact Olive’s family to inform them of my intentions. I reached out to the Remembering Olive Collective and also the Lambeth Archives, both of whom were extremely supportive.
I hope one day to be in a position to put together an extensive record of the numerous amazing moments since my exhibition opened in September 2019. It was originally due to close in December 2019, but due to popular demand was extended until April 2020. Then the global Covid19 lockdown took place and My heart will always be in Brixton unwittingly became perhaps one of the longest non-permanent exhibitions in the U.K. The exhibition is finally due to be de-installed this year after a run of 20 months and possibly being viewed by up to a thousand visitors. Some of my highlights included giving four of Olive’s siblings and their extended families a private tour of the exhibition where they shared fond memories, partnering with the Black Cultural Archives to host My heart will always be in Brixton as part of the Google Arts and Culture online exhibition which last June was featured across the U.K. under the Olive Morris Doodle Google search bar and bringing the Recipe for a Happy Mind wellbeing Olive Morris workshops to Success School in Jamaica.
As I expressed to you at the event, I was emotionally touched by the artwork you created encapsulating my journey… as well as the beautiful tribute to Olive Morris.
So much has happened since the exhibition first opened in September 2019, snap General Election with saw the Conservative Party come into power to form a majority government, global pandemic of the coronavirus, international protests and condemnation at the death of George Floyd, renewed awareness of the Black Lives Matters movement, worldwide lockdowns, Brexit related marches, ongoing tensions of gentrification in areas which are predominately made up of marginalised communities, the Windrush Scandal, and the recent rebuked Race Report.
As I write this article in 2021, I imagine Olive leading from the front were she still alive. She continues to inspire those who come across her incredible achievements by forever having a special place in our hearts.
Linett Kamala is an artist, educator & carnivalist. She is Founding Director of Lin Kam Art which enriches lives through festival arts.
Born in London to Jamaican parents, Linett has over 30 years of experience working with organisations across all sectors and is passionate about sharing her love of carnival culture with others.
Trained in the therapeutic and educational application of the Arts, Linett’s motto is: “Art Is medicine – Be sure to take daily!”
Her appointments serving the Arts include; President of the University of the Arts London Alumni of Colour Association and Board Director for the Notting Hill Carnival.
She is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and teaches on the MA Performance: Design & Practice at University of the Arts London Central Saint Martins.
We all want to make it.
Make it in our chosen career. Maybe make it big.
Sometimes perhaps just make it to pay day.
But whatever our ambition, what unites us all is the desire to thrive, be recognised – and be supported.
And that’s what Lambeth’s Creative Enterprise Zone is all about. Supporting creative people to do amazing creative things without having to leave our amazingly creative corner of south London.
Because we all want to make it – of course – but more than that, we want to Make It in Brixton.