Words by Tammi Bello
Founder of the newly-established arts agency Disrupt Space - and former director of the Black Cultural Archives - Paul Reid has created a platform for emerging artists in the UK and across the globe. It is an arts agency with a difference - putting Black artists, their needs and stories centre stage.
"I'm fed up with knocking on the door and asking to come in. This time around, I felt that there needed to be a strong entity that could dictate some of the terms, be much stronger in its conversations with power, therefore become powerful itself and change the narrative."
I had the chance to chat with Reid in the bustling Brixton market where Disrupt Space is based, and we got talking about who they are, what they're doing, and most of all, what they represent.
One of the many exciting projects in the pipeline for the artists he represents at Disrupt Space is creating non-fungible tokens (NFTs). These are unique digital identifiers recorded on a blockchain that tells the world who owns a particular asset. These are incredibly valuable in the art world as it makes digital artworks, made by digital artists, more difficult to copy.
As with many innovations, Black people can often be left behind or out of the conversation altogether. But Paul went against this, leading the discussion with NFTs. "Black artists or Black people generally start to experience change as we're catching up after the event. We're often the consumers of other people's products, and that's one of the cycles that I think is important for us to break, at this point, at the very early stages of NFT's. I thought it was important for us to find out what was going on, for us to inform our artists and provide them with the information that they need if they want to go down that road."
Watch: Black art, Black stories, Black voices
At its heart, Disrupt Space is a platform for support. Its roster is made up of emerging visual artists, and helps give them a larger platform to continue to do the excellent work they do. This also gives them the potential to grow, so the company itself matures alongside the artists. What comes through here is that behind the scenes, Reid and the artists have built a relationship that caters to supporting their needs. Disrupt Space is whoever, and whatever, artists require at the time.
"We care for our artists, because of the culture of what we've created, we refer to each other as family, we speak about this as a family, we speak about this as a movement." says Paul.
Boasting artists such as Gus Brooks-Simpson, Lola Betiku and Sharon Adebisi, the range of work produced is extensive. They are quickly becoming more established as is the organisation itself. "When the artist becomes more celebrated, I'd like to see the relationship change. So the artist almost becomes a mentor or guide for those less experienced artists that need their guidance. I come from a school of thought that there's no leaving Disrupt Space."
With Disrupt Space, Reid is challenging notions within the art world on numerous levels. One of these is the location of DS itself. It lies in the middle of Brixton market, sandwiched between greengrocers and butchers. It doesn't have the stuffy atmosphere of some galleries with commercial intent. It is welcoming and allows for discussion, even if you might not have a typical arts background.
Reid has a distinguished community-led practice, first displayed in his work at Black Cultural Archives (BCA) and now here at Disrupt Space. You don't often happen upon a gallery in the middle of a market. You see markets as spaces of trade, where people come to buy food. Many stalls are independent, and the consumers are from a working-class background, a group all too often left out of art conversations, and Disrupt Space is slowly trying to reconfigure that balance.
"I don't want us to be trying to enter a space where we're struggling to be appreciated. I think if Disrupt Space establishes itself in urban environments like we are here in Brixton market, where people who are walking past might not have that appreciation of the arts in the formal or traditional sense, but they're on their way,” says Paul.
“Some people come to the market to buy their meat or fish; they wave as they pass the gallery. I want them to come in and tell me, 'That piece of work is amazing,’ and we're likely after that to have a conversation about the art being expensive; this is a key learning opportunity for all concerned. We can now have a conversation about valuing Black art, about our image and the way we are represented."
This multifaceted disruption brings in new collectors and artists alike, who might not have had the traditional routes into the art world and brings a kind of creative hub into a community setting. Art galleries can be tricky spaces to approach without feeling like you need training or education in the industry. But by placing it within a community narrative, it gives art the familiarity and ease of any other shop, allowing people to go in and browse and make their own judgements.
"There's such a range like that; sometimes it's artists that seek us out, it's the casual person walking by, it could equally be an organisation or an agency because we operate from this space. It's partly an office, it's also a workshop space, and it's also a gallery, and at some point, we will move towards this idea of virtual and digital spaces."
Another layer of this disruption is the colour. Miles away from the traditional white cube, Disrupt Spaces’ walls are black and it is this that earns Disrupt Space its epithet. It is the epitome of the untraditional and gives space to celebrate Blackness and Black art – even the walls help tell its story.
"It gets attention, black pops as we know,’ explains Paul. ‘Interestingly, the general start point is often a white box or a blank sheet of paper, which is often white… but when we want to have a good time we look black, in fashion we look to black, everything was born from black."
Disrupt Space is also disrupting the very idea of the specific language we use in the art world and putting the stories of the artists front and centre. In each of the artist's practices, this storytelling element brings their world view to the canvas, not being bound tightly by what the art world deems them to be. Each of the artists has radical selfhood, which can be seen in their vibrant, unique works.
"I celebrate when artists bring themselves to the party and when their own story comes into what it is that they're saying, and in some ways what happens is that language, that doesn't make you different to anybody else, it starts to fade, more vital for me is when they talk about the things they're are grappling with, what they are trying to create and are creating in their own words."
For too long, the Black community has taken far too small a stake in the art world; this runs through from art schools to working artists, curators, collectors, and gallerists. Less than 10% of Londons' catalogue of more than 250 registered art institutions are Black-owned.
Reid is therefore looking to turn that on its head by creating a platform for Black artists, developing the business with NFTs, being in a predominantly Black community and encouraging that community to leap into buying art. "Our stake in [the art world] as a Black community is minimal, in comparison to the global market. If we're constantly locked out of an industry where there are cultural values where people don't necessarily understand or appreciate your art because they haven't been trained in it, they might not understand it. How do we take a stronger stance in that new space?"
Disrupt Space makes a statement about the change; it is a strong, evolving Black entity, representing possibility. Looking back throughout Reid's career, his duty has long been to disrupt. He makes changes to institutions, and he goes as far as he can within them. I, for one, am incredibly excited to see the journey of the organisation in the future and just how far they progress.
'Each stage I've gone through, I've done with all good intention, but I've had to disrupt it, I stay for as long as I can, and I move on. Sometimes these are long periods, but when I look back, I see a tremendous difference that it now makes.'
Watch: Equality & The Hunt For Hair Products in Wales