Art has played an integral role in allowing Liverpool to shape its own narratives. With the Granby Press recently established by visual artist Sumuyya Khader, voices across the city have a new, accessible means for making their messages seen and heard. Julia Johnson speaks to the artist about driving the project forward and the need for a permanent space representing Liverpool’s Black arts and culture.
In 2020 questions of who’s voice is being represented, where and how, are entering the general public discourse more than ever. How are a diversity of voices beyond the current political hegemony being represented and consumed? If your voice doesn’t find its place in standard models of media communication, how can individuals and communities still be heard? These are important questions to ask in a healthy democracy.
Discrepancies in language are most often described as a ‘barrier’, an obstacle to understanding. What this framing fails to acknowledge is that communication can be learned, and the process of learning to understand each other’s preferred languages of communication can expand our own horizons. And visual language, believes Sumuyya Khader, is just as vital a method of communication as words. “Everything doesn’t have to be standardised English – not everyone likes to communicate in that way. Visually, other things can happen in terms of how we can speak to each other and get a message across,” she explains from within her workshop and workspace on Granby Street
This is the inspiration behind Khader’s latest project, GRANBY PRESS. Located just off Lodge Lane, the Press is, on the face of it, a fairly straightforward setup, based around a risograph printer. The machine looks similar to a standard office photocopier and shares that machine’s ability to quickly produce large print runs. But using multiple, transparent inks provides much more creative options for layering, blending and detail. Within a single run it’s likely that no two versions of a print will be exactly the same, with slight shifts in the alignment of layers giving each print a uniqueness and craft. And using soy-based inks makes it one of the more sustainable printing types. Small wonder it’s a process growing in popularity amongst artists and illustrators.
Khader’s inspiration for starting Granby Press was partly based in her own practice and pleasure from working with riso printing. But it was also based on what she identified as a local, social need. “There’s loads of artists, creatives and community groups that are doing things, and a lot of the time it’s really cheap flyers that are posted through your door. And these projects are so much more,” she points out.
The Press can give local people and projects access to the means to create unique and striking designs. It has the potential to help the quality of visual material match the ambition of an idea, giving it a physical tangibility. Khader either offers creatives experienced in riso printing access to the machine, or else oversee the entire process for anyone inexperienced with the technology. When it is safe to do so she also intends to run workshops and courses at the Press, where anybody can come and turn their ideas into print.
As the region finds itself in the stagnation of another lockdown, there’s a growing importance to support locally grown initiatives. Granby Press had been a concept in Khader’s mind for some time, but it took the break from routine of the first lockdown to give her time to envisage it as a reality. She’s not the only person to have seen a place in the community for Granby Press: the project was made possible by a hugely successful GoFundMe which raised more than double its initial £3000 target.
It’s not really a surprise that so many people were willing to back Khader. She’s something of a powerhouse not only in her own artistic practice, but using her creative platform represent her community. Another of her recent public projects was to turn artworks by six Black artists from Liverpool into huge posters, which were pasted prominently on Bluecoat’s Blundell Lane wall through October, coinciding with Black History Month. The project was conceived and executed by Khader, supported by the Without Walls fund from Culture Liverpool and Arts Council England. “I’m doing it because it’s needed,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why do you never see Black artists in Liverpool?’ So for Without Walls I really wanted do some billboard-style posters that showcase stellar artists in the city.”
Stellar the artworks were, but nevertheless temporary. And Khader’s vision for achieving meaningful Black representation in Liverpool and beyond go further than a short-term installation. The posters could also be seen as contributing to something which is of deep importance to Khader – a counter-balance to the stories of Black oppression more commonly centred by institutions. “The only thing I see of Black people in Liverpool is slavery. And it’s really important, but… where do I go to see the incredible musicians from this city? she continues. “To pick up the literature we’ve written? Where do I go to feel culture and joy from past present and future, that radiates through the building? Because when I go to the International Slavery Museum, I just feel horror, and sadness. A cultural centre is never going to take away from their work, because it’s vital, but as a Black woman I need something more”.
On social media she has talked about her vision for this “something more”: a library and archive of Black culture. Though only a concept at this stage, it’s an exciting vision. “The idea would be that it would have some sort of exhibition part and creative event space to it, then a library and archive. This wouldn’t just be for literature – it would be for music, for artwork. For people to come in and learn. Things that people can actually interact with and learn from. And know that the oldest Black community is here, so they can see where it started and what it’s doing today.
In Khader’s vision this archive would be based in Granby, just as the Press is. As a resident of Granby, Khader is deeply concerned with who owns the narrative of L8. “The stats on deprivation are always used ahead of the amazing things that are happening here,” she notes. “But those two things don’t always have to correlate with each other. The deprivation isn’t why we’re excellent. But the language is always intertwined.”.
Narratives have been further complicated in recent years by the national spotlight on the involvement of Assemble. For all that their work framing Granby and L8 a more positive light in the national press, it’s often underscored by a viewpoint that the area would be nothing without external intervention. But it wasn’t outside organisations which have brought Granby Press into reality, and the countless other arts and community initiatives in the area, but rather local people being excited to support an initiative with genuine local roots and ethos.
“People get really excited by new things happening in L8, led by people from L8. It doesn’t happen very often, or it’s very low level, and without funding opportunities they don’t really get the chance to fully shine”, replies Khader. Thus Granby Press is a community asset in more than one way; not only as an accessible resource, but also as yet another example of what happens when people have the resources to bring their visions to life. This, Khader believes, is what make the GoFundMe such a success, especially during our current uncertain times. “I think it has aligned in some way. I think people are desperate for media that appeals to them, speaks to them and understands them, she adds. And people want something good and positive to happen.”
I ask Khader whether she sees Granby Press as having a part to play as the next step in L8’s story and lineage. That by being grounded in its place, it could be a facilitator – perhaps even a catalyst – for a range of present-day creative projects which will have their own space in a future archive. “I think that would be a great thing to happen,” she responds. “The exciting thing about the Press is that the potential of it is endless. I have my own passions and dreams for it, but the main thing is hearing other people’s ideas, how they’d like them to be transmitted to the world – the Press can be the facilitator for that.”
While Khader’s already been putting the Press to use to produce new, politically-engaged and representative artwork, she’s also been working through many more requests for future collaboration. While conditions may restrict Granby Press from offering everything it aspires to for the time being, it’s already clear that it has the potential to make an impact on creative work in L8 and beyond. And with Khader as its driving force, you’d believe that it will achieve every one of its aspirations.