The palm truth about British culture

Oct 27, 2014, 08:42 IST | Soma Das

The British Council is bringing the Folk Archive, a visual account of contemporary popular British culture, to India. To be displayed at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, the exhibits include paintings, films and other works by prisoners, protesters, pop fans, carnival troupes and the homeless

Around the turn of the millennium, British artists Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane decided to create a visual account of popular British culture. Seeking to celebrate British activities, past times and pursuits, the duo incorporated paintings, films, performances, costumes, objects of protest and handcrafted works made by a cross section of people (from prisoners and protestors to carnival troupes, community groups, and the homeless), to highlight how creativity is a part of day-to-day life.

Over six years, they collected 280 elements that overcame the barriers of categorisation (folk art, fine art, craft, etc), capturing the times and showing that art can be made by artists as well as non-artists.

Clairvoyent's Hand Sign
Clairvoyent's Hand Sign, Blackpool, 2004

The Folk Archive was acquired by the British Council Collection in 2007 and has been exhibited in Belgrade, Paris, Milan and Shanghai. Post the exhibition in Mumbai, it will head to Kolkata and Delhi. Excerpts from an interview with Deller and Kane:

Q. How did the Folk Archive take shape?
A. Jeremy Deller (JD): Folk Archive is a collection of current and future UK Folk art. The project took shape through a shared interest and the idea started from a pub conversation.
Alan Kane (AK): It was the end of the last century, and we were thinking of how the nation was going to be represented by the authorities in The Millennium Dome exhibition. We suspected the display would be slick and felt that material from an individual human scale would not feature much. In a way, this show was our response to this expectation, our millennium Britain survey.

Vegetable Animal by GH Ghent, Lambeth Country Fair, London
Vegetable Animal by GH Ghent, Lambeth Country Fair, London

Q. What are the varied elements that feature in the Folk Archive?
A. AK: We talked about updating the notion of what is considered Folk art in Britain. Art made by working people was thought to have disappeared in the UK around the turn of the 20th century, and we suspected it had probably just mutated, evolved and became ignored. We set ourselves the task of seeking it out and promoting it. The exhibition shows examples of visual creativity from as many areas as we could conceive of: signs, graffiti, performances, jokes, publications, models, tributes, decorations, cakes and even some paintings and sculptures. The only thing, which ties them together is that they were made to be seen but made by people who would not call themselves artists, primarily.

Folk Archive banner
Folk Archive banner

Q. Will the exhibits feature in entirety in the exhibition?
A. AK: When we first made the exhibition, many of the original objects were borrowed. Most of these were returned to their owners apart from a few key things the British Council negotiated the purchase of. However, a substantial part of the exhibition included documentary photographs and videos, which we collected of things in their location. This was what we were left with after the original tour and this forms the bulk of the exhibition as it is.
JD: We hope mostly everything is included.

My Pony Woody cake
My Pony Woody cake

Q. How many years do the exhibits span; over how long were they collected?
A. JD: We spent five years taking pictures and picking things up. Some exhibits in the show were new at the time we showed them first, i.e. websites and things made on the day we saw them. Other things, some of the performative material, for instance, are part of long traditions that have been going on for hundreds of years. Folk Archive was initially completed in 2005.

Snowdrop the Mechanical Elephant, The Clare Family, Egremont, Cumbri
Snowdrop the Mechanical Elephant, The Clare Family, Egremont, Cumbri

Q. What were the challenges of gathering this range of collectibles?
A. JD: None really, apart from the sheer amount of things we could have included and our lack of time and money. It is an infinite show, potentially.
AK: We knew we would not ‘define’ our subject. We were simply attempting to suggest the huge range and depth of creativity out there when you start to look. When we started, we weren’t sure of how people would feel about us paying a strange type of attention to their work, but almost without exception people understood quickly what we were trying to do and contributed eagerly.

(From left to right) Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane
(From left to right) Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane

As Jeremy says, this was a pretty ambitious project undertaken on an extremely tight budget. But right from the start, it was important to us that we treat this material with the same care and respect that other art is given. The major challenge was to try and make an expensive-looking show on a shoestring budget.


Folk Archive captures creativity in everyday life in contemporary UK. The exhibition is part of the British Council’s collection, Museum without Walls. Through outreach activities, we hope to see a reflection of contemporary India as well. 
- Rob Lynes, Director, British Council India

The contemporary history of the UK as represented in Folk Archive engages in unexpected ways with the contemporary history of the city of Mumbai, itself a place that is iconic for migration and urban flux.
- Sharon Memis, Director, British Council, West India

From: October 31 to November 30, 10 am to 6 pm
At: Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Byculla (E).
Call: 23731234

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