Jo Bounds talks to Higham Park artist Barnaby Barford about two of his projects with large local influences
The building of a supermarket superstore on the site of an old Highams Park factory might have caused controversy among Waltham Forest residents at the time, but a newly-commissioned piece of outdoor art has ensured it will become a go-to place on the art trail.
Local artist Barnaby Barford is the man behind it. “When Tesco built a superstore in Highams Park a few years ago, they had to give something back to public art,” he tells me.
“It’s the nature of building something like that. What was on the site previously was really important to the area. It was the Halex factory, which made sheet plastic. It was there from 1897 to 1971, and it’s a large part of the reason why the area of Highams Park is here. It was the first producer of substitute ivory and tortoiseshell, for cutlery handles and brooches, and also the world’s biggest manufacturer of ping pong balls.
“I live in Highams Park and was shortlisted to put a proposal together for the artwork. I know the people, I know the area and I know the history. My idea was to use the original Halex factory logo, an etching of an elephant and tortoise, walking arm in arm – it’s a beautifully surreal image that was used up until 1921.
“It’s become the basis of the piece, with the animals now walking towards each other. It’s being made out of laser-cut stainless steel, roughly four metres wide, two metres high, with the piece lit from the inside and four-centimetre holes – the same size as ping pong balls. It’s due to launch in January.
“I’ve never done a piece of public art like this before and throughout the whole process was one overriding thought – that I live in Highams Park and I’ll have to walk past it every day.
“You can’t just put it up and forget about it. Kids will say to my children, ‘your dad made that’. It’s permanent, a big bit of steel. So it’s all about community engagement. It can’t just get parachuted in – you have to let the community know what’s happening.
“That’s why I’m working with two local schools, doing talks and leaving it open in terms of how the teachers interpret it. It could be about conservation, a narrative within contemporary art, or the interpretation of manufacture – maybe making paper templates similar to how the steel is cut.
“They could make lanterns, write stories, do a performance or make music – I don’t want to be too prescriptive. It’s not mine. It’s for here. And people are really excited about it. That’s the good thing about living in the area.
“Highams Park is funny – it’s a crossroads between Chingford, Walthamstow and Woodford. It’s a bit of a non-place in that way, so I hope it gives us some kind of identity and acts as a beacon for the area. There’s so much interesting stuff going on here now – a real sense of community and people creating stuff.”
One of Barnaby’s other recent works, Tower of Babel, also helps document the Waltham Forest landscape. Specially created for the V&A Museum in central London, the artist had 3,000 model shops made out of bone china in Stoke-on-Trent. He cycled more than 1,000 miles during the making of the installation, visiting every postcode in London and photographing more than 6,000 shops, before the Tower of Babel was built in the museum’s entrance hall.
“I make work that looks at society – our hopes, dreams and aspirations – along with our frailties and failures,” Barnaby continued.
“London has always been a city built on trade and commerce – after the Great Fire, they tried to knock it down and rebuild it, but everyone just set up shop the next day, and that’s why we have this funny medieval street system.
“So I was really interested in the idea that we’ve ceased to be citizens and we are now just consumers, and our destiny it is to be dissatisfied consumers for, if we were satisfied, we’d cease to consume and our whole economic system would crumble
“That’s what kick-started the project. So all the shops at the bottom are closed down, derelict or pound shops, followed by convenience stores, until you reach the exclusive boutiques and galleries at the top.
“Some shops are featured both pre and post-gentrification, so there’s a fried chicken shop in Hoe Street before and after redesigned signage. Of course, I was biased, but a lot of my favourites are in E17.”
Among Barnaby’s favourite local shops are The Viking Store in Wood Street, Manze’s Pie and Mash in Walthamstow High Street, the Polski Deli in Hoe Street, and Fluffy’s Bakery in Lea Bridge Road.
“You soon realise these shops are the wallpaper of London, so this is a celebration of the city. What’s great about London is that the look of the streets is totally unregulated, we’re surrounded by this wallpaper that completely affects our visual landscape.
“Even though you might walk past them every day and don’t really look at them, these shops are people’s personalities. Each one is someone’s dream.
“And what people don’t realise is that London just won’t look like this in five years’ time – even though they think it will.”
To find out more about Barnaby Barford and his art:
To buy a Tower of Babel ceramic shop: