North Kensington in West London changed forever following the Grenfell Tower fire disaster of June 14th this year. Already known for its street art, the area’s walls have become a canvas for tributes to those lost in the fire, a space for free expression and to vent rage, without a media filter. A semiotics expert and local resident, Chris Arning, looked at the possible meanings and genesis of a striking example of post-Grenfell North Ken street art… What is Semiotics?
Semiotics derives from the ancient Greek word semion, meaning ‘sign’ and is a subject devoted to evidence-based analysis of signs and meaning. It is a field that encompasses culture, communication and meaning and includes logos, branding and street art.
North Kensington is replete with street art. Of course there is always a flurry of artists before carnival every year, but since Grenfell in June, a lot of other types of pieces have appeared: the modified London Underground Love sign and a great Grenfell RIP on the corner of the Acklam Road on the left as you turn off from Ladbroke Grove towards Portobello – done, I think, by Code FC. Street art is the medium and message of anonymous resistance. It is done to show that whatever the official story, the streets is watching and people know what is going on – sgraffiti means ‘scribbilings’ (from the Italian sgraffio, to scratch) something that goes back at least to ancient Rome.
On the way home a few weeks ago, I happened upon a strange sign on a wall off Powis Square. It sort of stopped me in its tracks because there was an uncanniness about it, both familiar and eerie. I’m writing a book on semiotics at the moment, as you do, and I was intrigued so thought I’d take a pic and have since pondered what it might mean. I deciphered the letters tangled up together as RBKC. This is the old logo of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. You can still see it on some of the street signs of the borough.
I have reproduced the street art above, alongside an embossed version on a local street light.
Two London-based community organisations honoured the young people of North Kensington at the weekend. At an event on Ladbroke Grove, local children affected by the 14th June Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath showcased their creative skills and public speaking abilities.
The children were given a platform to reflect on their experiences of the summer after the Grenfell disaster. Many of them had benefited from trips away from West London, funded and organised by Baraka Community Association (BCA) and Worldwide Somali Students & Professionals (WSSP). The trips included a residential at Hindleap Warren, visits to Legoland, Chessington, Butlins and Thorpe Park.
Over a hundred days have now passed since the unprecedented fire on the Lancaster West estate, which claimed scores of lives, including friends of the children present.
The young people were set the task of designing posters to express their feelings experiences during summer 2017, presenting them to a panel of judges that included Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad. Contestants were judged on their artistic ability, literacy and presentation skills.
After much deliberation and disagreement, the cash prizes went to:
Third prize: Aisha, aged nine, for her poster ‘Asia, Africa’.
Aisha reflected on getting far away from North Kensington to Dubai, Kenya (which she described as ‘boring’ – sorry Kenya) and Somalia. Aisha gained the judges’ praise for her lively, confident presentation.
Second prize: Abdullahi M, aged nine, for his poster ‘My Sad but Amazing Summer’.
Abdullahi described the events of 14th June as they had unfolded for him, talking about his mother’s tears, and the united local community. He ended his presentation with the words “peace and love for the community of North Kensington”.
First prize: Hussein, aged 13.
Hussein received first prize for his combination of a brilliant design and a very eloquent presentation, outlining how each section of his picture linked together, and explaining the abstractions to the audience and judges.
The prizes were awarded by Emma Dent Coad MP, who hailed the organisations involved and the families in attendance, noting that they were doing “what we all want to do: making the most of ourselves and our children”.
The event showcased the effectiveness of well-established and well-connected community groups. Already up and running and filling in gaps in provision long before the Grenfell fire, these organisations were in place to provide much-needed support and relief when North Kensington was shattered by the events of June 14th. When government services were most needed, they were found wanting, but the community was able to provide some essential presence.
WSSP’s Director Kasim Ali said: “The aim was to help children cope with the Grenfell disaster by talking about it and expressing themselves artistically. At the same time they learned lifelong skills such as design, presentation and public speaking”.
The other talented children taking part and so close to winning were:
As Abdullahi M said: “peace and love for the community of North Kensington”.
Wednesday 14th June was the day Urban Dandy was going to write up last week’s historic ousting of the Conservatives from Kensington in the general election. Twenty Labour voters, some from the Grenfell Tower, had contacted us with their joyful responses. North Kensington, so victimised for so long, had something to celebrate.
But the horrific events at the Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West estate overtook us, and our beloved North Kensington.
Urban Dandy was born on Lancaster West, where the spirit of defiance among the downtrodden inspired our name.
The estate has had serious issues, most significantly a lack of investment and a very negative attitude towards residents from the council. The neglect of the estate during my years there struck me as something of a cruel game – the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Association (TMO) seemed to be actively against residents. So what should have been routine phone calls to resolve minor issues got nowhere, with a suspicion of a perverse pleasure being taken by the TMO. Nobody liked the TMO, nobody rated them, and today the anger against the organisation and their local authority overlords was everywhere.
A day of helping out at the scene raised many questions: where is the council’s organised response? Where is the prime minister? How can this have happened? Nobody on the estate, and it really is nobody, doubts that the long-term neglect of their housing is behind the disaster. Neglect is a political choice.
The UK is the first world, but within the first world are pockets of the third world. In the third world people don’t buy contents insurance and councils don’t install communal fire alarms.
All the questions will be addressed in time. Some truths we already have: North Kensington is a remarkable multi-cultural success story. It is the best of British, in which everybody is welcome. Today the community was out in force, in total unity, all ethnicities and all religions.
To fully recount the experience of the day would be impossible. So many moments of spontaneous human kindness and decency passed in the blink of an eye. So many tragic scenes were glimpsed in passing. So much love was shared between people. There was no separation, no melodrama, just an outpouring of humanity, brotherly and sisterly love, love for children and love of life.
The events will stay with residents forever: children being thrown from windows, phone calls made from the tower by fathers to say goodbye to loved ones, desperate residents switching their lights on and off to get attention as the fire spread. Many local people told me about the screams they heard coming from Grenfell Tower, and their feeling of impotence at hearing their neighbours perish.
Many people died today, and so many lives have been shattered. The community has not been shattered though, and so it is fitting that the art work for the celebratory blog on the Labour victory is used here instead. Come Unity.
Donations can be made at:
Al Manaar Mosque
Westway Sports Centre
St Clement and St James
Rugby Portobello Trust
Tabernacle Christian Centre
Google or call first to see which donations should go where.