Under pressure: The attack on art in Southend

11 Mins read

Against all odds, Emma Edmondson’s artwork will soon be displayed in Southend. This is not the first time “controversial” art has been threatened by local councillors. The only difference now is that the story did not end in censorship. While Edmondson prepares for the launch, it begs the question of what these ongoing tensions mean for the future of art in the city.

The funding was in jeopardy. The building permission was at risk. One councillor was even heard to say he might have an accident with his car after the work was approved. This is the response Emma Edmondson faced as her council-commissioned artwork was presented to her elected officials.

“What surprised me was how a project celebrating a history that hasn’t been documented in Southend could annoy councillors so much. This is such a celebratory piece of work,” she says. 

In the final days of November 2022, the artist found herself at the centre of conflict as a string of councillors set out to censor her work.

The future of the project was in limbo, but after months of uncertainty, Edmondson’s sculptures have finally been approved. However, the resistance she faced is far from forgotten, as the question of the survival of public art in Southend lingers. 

Their land. Our land. 

To understand the crackdown on public art in the coastal city, it is first worth asking what it was about Edmondson’s work that struck a nerve among the councillors. 

Leading up to the scorching summer days of 2022, local residents opened their letterboxes to the sight of a blue slip of paper. One side featured the striking print of a bright red brick.

The other side recited the words: “No bricks or tiles shall be made (nor any clay or lime burnt on the land and no excavation of gravel sand clay or soil should be made with thereon so as to deprive any adjoining property of lateral support or for any purpose other than for building on the land)”. 

Bright blue post card with an orange print of a hand holding up a single brick. There is a stamp reading 'Made from this land' in the left corner.
Edmondson’s postcard invited local residents to participate in traditional brick-making [Martine Aamodt Hess]

Southend is rich in clay, yet this covenant prevented locals from using the earth underfoot to make their own bricks and tiles. It was this centuries-old rule that became the starting point for Edmondson’s series of sculptures Made from this Land, each a pillar built from handmade bricks.

Her project would also give residents back the freedom to use the earth as they please, a right historically reserved for industrialists. “The work, on the surface, isn’t very political, but there are disruptive elements to it,” Edmondson points out. 

Aside from learning how to cast bricks from natural clay, the artist’s blue postcards invited locals to join her in reviving the art of brick-making, a craft which is deeply entwined with the area’s past. Since then, nearly 100 residents have been involved in the process of casting bricks for the three pillars which will map out a walk of the historical brickfields in Essex this summer. 

“I want to celebrate and cement their histories,” she says, emphasising the lack of documented working-class history. In the past two-and-a-half years of working on the project, she has therefore collaborated with Southend locals and craftsmen who have passed on both skill and knowledge.

“There are a lot of memorials for the ordermen and estate agents who put these covenants in place – you can see their names all over town – but I want to celebrate all these people who worked the land, dug up this earth, made these bricks that literally built Southend.”

Edmondson fell in love with the stories she could tell through the muddy Southend clay. She knew that beyond the rough edges of each brick were soft whispers of the people who had used the earth to build the place she calls home.

But not everyone shared her affection. “There were a lot of comments like ‘It’s just a pile of bricks, it’s not a sculpture’ but I’ve got tough skin and people can have an opinion on art,” she says, recounting the initial planning meetings where each of her sculptures had to pass through the council. 

However, on November 20, 2022, the conversation took a turn as independent councillor Ron Woodley opposed her project application based on its location.

The idea was that the sculpture would mark the edge of a brickfield where a jetty for the brick barges used to be. Woodley, on the other hand, dismissed the historical significance as it meant the sculpture would be located outside the front gate of a property whose owner did not want it there. 

“The column was on public land but outside a mansion in a very affluent space within Southend,” Edmondson explains. “That’s when the conversation transformed from being about taste.”

Suddenly, her work, which intended to interrogate land rights, was wrapped up in a land ownership controversy in its own right.

In a post shared with her Instagram followers, she states: “As I was making bricks, connecting with residents and exploring local history, industry and property laws, I realised land agency is pretty fragile. This has now been reflected in what has played out in councillor meetings.” 

Censorship dressed as concern 

A single red brick held up against a brickwall.
Brick made for Edmondson’s upcoming installation in Southend. [Emma Edmondson]

Notably, Made from this Land was initially granted £15k by Section 106 money (S106), a policy which makes it possible for artists and arts organisations to receive funding from local authorities for projects benefiting the community. As writer Lucy Atkinson breaks down in ArtsProfessional, this might include public art like murals or other creative community-focused projects such as those involving the mapping of heritage.

While Edmondson’s work undoubtedly fits this mould, Independent councillor Ron Woodley, alongside a group of Conservative councillors, reduced her sculpture to what they called a “phallic symbol”. Their proposition? To revoke both planning permission and funding. 

The next item on their agenda sent further shock waves through the local art community as the councillors proposed a vote on how S106 money is spent.

“Funding is very challenging at the moment and this is a very well-trodden way to fund public arts. If this project was cancelled, what would that have meant for future S106 money being put towards public art?” Edmondson shakes her head, and her bright orange hair, which seems fitting of her fiery spirit, moves with her. What she was witnessing was scary. But she was not ready to give up. No chance. 

As the councillors continued their crusade, she bit back with a report outlining the legal case against their motion to revoke planning permission and funding. Spelt out in black and white, it stipulated that the motion could not legally pass and that her project, which “celebrates local working culture and heritage”, could go ahead.

It was a turning point. Or, at least, that is what it seemed until the councillors called the decision into the Place Scrutiny Committee. In the words of Edmondson, the project had become “a political football, being passed around various council committees until a loophole can be found to stop it.”

Edmondon is wearing a pair of overalls, looking in the camera, smiling. She is holding up a trey showing off one of her bricks. The backdrop is a brickwall.
Edmondson outside her studio at the Old Waterworks in Southend [Laurence Harding]

For Edmondson, there seemed to be no end in sight when the committee then returned the motion back to full council. At that point, Councillors Tony Cox and James Moyies of the Place Scrutiny Committee, along with Ron Woodley, had not only raised further concerns about the sculpture’s placement, but they also used the case as an example justifying why councillors should be able to choose “appropriate” art in the future. Moyies even went as far as to suggest councillors should meet with artists to “discuss and change what their ideas are”. 

It was not until late March that Edmondson finally could announce the project’s approval. “I powered through, and I think I only noticed how much it had affected me when we found out that the project could actually go ahead,” Edmondson says. She draws a parallel between the straining labour of working with the brickearth and the toll of seeing her project in limbo for four long months.

“The physicalness of it. I felt like my body, and the way I was holding myself, completely changed when we found out. When this tenseness and anxiety that had been scrunched up inside me lifted.” 

At last, Edmondson could let out a sigh of relief but she knew this was not the end of the story. Because, despite the positive news, she was still left with questions. What is the wider impact? What does this mean for the future of our creative community? Why, in this city, has this happened again?

Not in my backyard

As she was well aware, a campaign led by the same Conservative councillors had recently forced the removal of Gabriella Hirst’s An English Garden. The reason? Much like what happened to Edmondson, the work prompted questions about the spending of public money and public land.

“There shouldn’t be censorship, there should be dialogue,” Hirst says. “When an artwork is complicated or difficult to people, you make forums to discuss it.” 

Her installation, which was set up in Gunners Park as a part of the Estuary Festival 2021, featured a row of benches surrounding a bed of Atom Bomb roses. Created in 1952, at the height of the cold war arms race, the birth of this rose coincided with the year Britain detonated its first atom bomb on Indigenous land in Australia.

As an Australian artist, Hirst was familiar with Britain’s nuclear colonialism, but she also knew the story is largely untold within the UK’s own borders. Her take on an English rose garden would be a space to critically reflect upon this history. 

Close-up of the yellow brass plaque mounted to the benches featuring in Hirst's garden installation.
Hirst’s plaque reveals details of Britain’s nuclear past. [Anna Lukala]

The location of Gunners Park was also no coincidence as it is situated only a few miles from the marshy plains of Foulness Island, home to one of the few sites in England associated with the development of nuclear weapons.

As the brass plaques mounted to Hirst’s benches outlined, this is where Britain’s first atomic bomb was assembled. The plaque further questioned the government’s investment in nuclear arms, following the decision to lift a 30-year ban on the development of nuclear weapons. 

Needless to say, the Conservative councillors were not happy. “They wanted the signage to be taken down without recognising that signage is entirely part of the work,” Hirst says. “The whole idea is to scrutinise what’s behind the roses. The good, the bad, the mess, the violence, the tending.”

Their discontent materialised in a series of e-mails which Hirst was copied into, and which quickly revealed there was not much room for dialogue. “I’ve realised that when you’re doing something political but in a gentle way, there will be people out there who don’t find it gentle.” 

One of the councillors was particularly unhappy with the statement which criticised the government’s decision to increase its nuclear arsenal by 40%, describing it as a move that put resources into “industries of violence as opposed to care”. In his opinion, investing in nuclear weapons is Britain caring for its citizens, not the other way around.

Despite their differences, Hirst emphasises that her work intended to start a conversation. “Please come to the garden and we can talk about ideas about protection and care,” she says. “But that was not on the table.”

Three benches surround a flower bed of pink atom bomb roses. The image is taken from above.
Hirst’s installation before it was removed from Gunners Park [Connor Turansky]

In an e-mail from Councillor Moyies, Hirst was accused of “a direct far-left wing attack on our history, our people and our democratically elected government”. He further claimed the work was demonising veterans by bringing nuclear history to the surface.

“Which is insane because many, many of the veterans in this particular programme of nuclear testing are actively protesting to get recognition and compensation for the violence that was inflicted upon them,” Hirst notes. She cannot help but chuckle, but what followed was no joke. 

Hirst was presented with a 48-hour ultimatum to remove the work before the councillors would intervene to censor it. Not only that, but they also threatened to launch a national media campaign targeting her work and associated arts organisations. Finally, Metal, the organisation that had commissioned the artwork, succumbed to the pressure and removed the installation. But the row of empty flower beds left behind spoke of the councillors silencing.

Councillor Moyies and Woodley were contacted for comment but have so far not responded.

Conservative currents

“It’s indicative of a broader atmosphere of cultural control. It’s wrapped up in the theatre of politics,” Hirst says. The motivation for censorship is not always clear cut. Sometimes suppressing an artwork can be a means to gain political backing. Sometimes it prevents an uncomfortable history from coming to the surface. Sometimes both.

Hirst acknowledges that censorship is not uncommon within the Art world. The only difference between these cases and what happened to Edmondson and herself is that their controversies were made public. “These people are getting bolder. The fact that they did this to An English Garden, and then they just turned the corner and did this to Emma’s brickwork.” 

“In both the UK and the US, we see examples in which government commissions of art are coming under scrutiny when the resulting artworks take a conceptually critical position of either historical or current decisions,” says Elizabeth Larison, Arts and Culture Advocacy Program Director for the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC).

The US-based organisation supports artists by providing one-to-one guidance for censorship intervention. She continues: “Or if its aesthetics inspire just anything but comfort among viewers – if it’s anything but relaxing and pleasing, there’s a question about why it should be funded.” 

Like Hirst, Larison notes that this Conservative pattern of silencing and censorship prevents critical discourse on both ends of the spectrum. “Controversial art should never be censored, it should be contextualised and debated. And, of course, it should be subjected to critique.”

A group of four people stand next to dug up earth that will be used to make bricks.
Edmondson worked with the local community to learn how to use Southend clay to cast bricks [Tessa Hallmann]

She explains that the moment these ideas become restricted or denied expression, there are two things that happen. “One is that the possibility of dialogue around them is completely foreclosed. There’s no opportunity there to counter or refute those ideas.”

The other? “The possibility is opened up that work can be suppressed. And then the question is, who decides what works can be suppressed?” 

The latter certainly hits close to home for both Edmondson and Hirst. “It’s interesting because both these works are about soil. The ground we walk on, what grows from it, what’s made from it, how we inhabit the soil collectively,” Hirst says.

“It’s when you look at the soil under your feet and the politics embedded in it, the property rights on top or look at what’s under the park and the histories there – then you start to mess with the entire national narrative.” 

What has transpired in Southend shows a pattern of strategies used to control and censor art that does not align with the political interests of a small group of councillors. However, residents are prepared to push back against this threat to public art. Since the beginning, Edmondson and Hirst have had the support of the local community, including the art scene, opposing councillors and the wider public. 

When Hirst’s installation was removed, the roses were used to propagate another 100 roses given to residents during a workshop. “The work continues to live in Southend, in the soil and communally. You can plant an atom bomb rose wherever you want, sneak it into a politician’s garden if you so wish,” she says. Hirst also organised the Rose Garden Conference, where she invited people to speak about Britain’s nuclear history, including International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons’ (ICAN) Dimity Hawkins and Aboriginal artist Yhonnie Scarce.

As we speak, Hirst is preparing to host another Rose Garden conference, this time in the US. Meanwhile, Edmondson is getting ready for her sculptures to face the world, and preferably not a councillor’s car.

“I will be on site, building the work and I’m expecting some difficult conversations with people who might be opposed to the artwork. I’m prepared for those conversations,” Edmondson says. She adds that she also wants to put together a guide for artists who find themselves facing similar threats of censorship in the future.

However, right now, she is focused on seeing her project come together at last: “I look forward to celebrating this history and the fact that so many other people were involved with the project.” 

Featured image courtesy of Emma Edmondson. 

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