When multi-disciplinary artist Bobby Benjamin left his university days behind, the enterprising figure found a job, saved his pennies, sourced funding and then ploughed his energies into his destiny with vehemence. "I didn’t have a clue how to run a business and still don’t. I just knew that I wanted a space where I could put on shows, develop my practice and create opportunities for the abundance of talented creatives in the region," he emphasises as I apprehend there is a lot to absorb about the achievements of Mr Benjamin.
"I’ve made a lot of sacrifices along the way – mostly financial. It’s so difficult for working-class artists, and often the pursuit of a career in the arts leads to a life in poverty. I know how much money gets thrown around in the arts and how much of that is wasted while working-class/underclass artists struggle to find the backing to tell their own stories." Bobby introduces the Working Class Creatives Database initiative and explains its significance in an industry where people can feel overlooked, undervalued and not sufficiently heard.
"WCCD is an initiative founded by Seren Metcalfe which aims to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by working-class artists and also to build a network of support and shared knowledge between these artists. It’s a brilliant resource that I’d implore any working-class creative to take a look at."
It was not known early on that art would be prevalent in the life of the Middlesborough lad. Bobby arrived at visual arts fairly late, in his mid-twenties, declaring its gradual process. "I was just experimenting in quite a naive, primal way; I suppose I still am. Right from the start, people just seemed to react to the things I made. At first, it was my friends and my lecturers then, once I left University, it was artists that I admired too, which gave me the confidence to make more things. Whether or not I have any talent is still up for debate," he modestly confesses.
Towards the end of his second year at Uni he lived around the corner from his studio with another artist from the course. Benjamin recollects a moment of consciousness. "We were so poor at the time – some things never change! We could never afford to heat the house, so instead, we’d get up early, head over to the studio and stay there until they closed at night." The pair would spend all day producing art and planning exhibitions. "Then when we went home and since we never had a TV, we’d just talk about art all night. Without realising, art went from being my hobby to being my life, and I’ve remained immersed ever since."
He practises as a multi-disciplinary artist but works predominantly in found objects and paint. While Benjamin endeavours to remain fluid with his visual language, the themes he investigates in his work are re-occurring: class, masculine identity and place. He advances, "The key evolution in my practice has been my relationship with space. Starting with DIY shows in car parks and abandoned buildings where the space itself becomes an imposition, my work was reactionary, and I would tend to produce site-specific installations."
"Now, I have more opportunities to exhibit in more traditional white wall environments, and it’s a very different dynamic." The work remains site-sensitive, but he is extra conscious of how a piece may come to exist beyond a specific setting.
Thinking back to his first-ever exhibition, the switched-on fella divulges that it was constructed in a humble car park and instilled a vision of what could be with risk and determination. "I used to cut through there ever night and think to myself what a beautiful gallery it would make. It was well lit, covered and empty on an evening. It took a lot of wrangling to get permission to stage the exhibition, but in the end, it really came together. There were four visual artists and a DJ, loads of people showed up, and it all felt fresh and exciting. We sat down together the next day and said, “Let’s start a gallery when we leave Uni," he fondly drifts back.
The House of Blah Blah was a gallery he co-founded after Uni discovering a grandiose Victorian building: Middlesbrough’s original town Post Office, which had lain dormant for twenty years. "We convinced the council to let us move in, renovate it and turn it into an arts hub. Before that, the town had never had an independent arts space on that scale. I only stayed on the project for a couple of years, but we did some amazing exhibitions and events, and the space itself continues to be an alternative cultural venue to this day."
Bobby goes on to discuss Dovetail Joints: his next project along with curator Connor Clements that was intended as a vehicle to collaborate with artists they admired in alternative spaces. "We were based firstly in a flat above the infamous Club Bongo and then at boutique-turned-event space Disgraceland. I left my role in 2019 to free up more time to focus on my own practice but Connor has continued to develop the project and react to our times by creating the Dovetail Joints Virtual Gallery, as well as developing virtual programmes with several other galleries, including my own."
Pineapple Black Arts
So that leads us nicely to Pineapple Black Arts. "Stephen Irving and I founded the gallery and assume the roles of co-directors. Being that we are the only members of staff though we do pretty much everything. Stephen has a better understanding of managing a CIC, and he’s far more practical, so leads on that, while I focus more on programming and liaising with artists." When it comes to curating, they both proclaim robust ideas and like to be hands-on. "Usually, one of us will have a clearer vision for a show or on how we might convey a narrative to our audience and will take the lead while the other lends support."
But wait, that still isn't it. The busy originator designed one more project that he is keen to narrate to me. Picasso Baby took form with the colourful emerging artist John James Perangie and Middlesbrough DIY venue Disgraceland. The duo wanted to document the creative spirit in Teesside that felt unscripted and organic. "The idea was to invite a bunch of artists and musicians to come along, bring any old tins of paint that were cluttering their studios and just hang out, share ideas and materials, and to build something together. Disgraceland’s owner Jane Jorgensen was amazing; she gave us free rein to paint anything and anywhere." At the end of the week, it was time to party, enhanced by the booking of their favourite bands.
He reminisces, "After the first event, it just felt too special not to do again, so we kept doing it. During the lockdown, in lieu of our live event, we started Picasso Baby digital magazine." An intention was to stay true to the ethos of their live event: an affectionately ramshackle affair. "We don’t really know what we are doing or what the outcome will be, and that artists have total creative control. At our live event, we offer artists a wall to do whatever they want on; with the magazine, we offer them a page. Whatever they send us - we print it."
"It’s very much artist-led and completely non-hierarchical. Too often, artists are forced to create work that fits the prescribed narratives of funders or arts organisations to find opportunities and support – Picasso Baby is the antithesis of this. We are focused on celebrating and supporting the individual and providing a platform for them to share their work uninhibited."
Thinking to the near, shine coated future, Bobby reveals that there are two shows soon that delight him. First up is his rescheduled solo exhibition at Crown Street Gallery, Darlington. "I’ve made an enormous body of work on a recurring theme over the last eight years, but I’ve tended to show one piece here and another there. There are a lot of pieces that are related contextually but have never inhabited the same space. I hope this exhibition will bring them together to form a more concise narrative. It’s not a retrospective; there will be old work and new, but it will be the most linear body of work I’ve presented; an idiosyncratic response to my lived experiences."
Premiering at ARC Stockton and curated by John James Perangie, he is developing another exhibition comprising the unseen work he has produced during the lockdown. Both shows are expected over the summer of 2021, but there is bound to be something else that catches Bobby Benjamin's eye. Bobby Benjamin, the man who has already achieved enormously for art, but also the region and its creative community. There is much to look forward to when we rise from the shadows into real life and can appreciate culture freely once again.
Article by Beverley Knight