Those who follow me on Twitter and Facebook will have noticed a steep increase in bicycle-related art works of late. Just moments before I left the cycle-rich city of Cambridge after 20 years of calling it my home, my arts organisation was awarded funding to run a project for the Cambridge Vélo Festival, which coincides with the Tour de France being in Cambridge. I swiftly tattooed a small bike on my forearm before heading for Spain leaving my co-director, Janice at the helm.
I have been lucky – I have been able to set up an impressive studio in the sunshine and commit myself to painting pictures that celebrate the work of World Bicycle Relief – the charity we are supporting throughout this work. Janice has been busy working with a wealth of bicycle-inspired talent and I am looking forward to returning to Cambridge soon to experience a sculpture trail of pieces all constructed from bicycle parts (Recycle Le Vélo) and a bicycle themed take over of the gallery at Cambridge Contemporary Arts.
Meanwhile, here in Spain I have been unable to escape bikes! After a saga which involved having to leave my trustee two-wheels in Cambridge, I set about finding a replacement here in Murcia. Just a few blocks away from my studio I discovered an amazing cycle hire business run by a Welsh bike enthusiast. The owner collects old bicycles and bicycle memorabilia, and he not only provided me with a bicycle (which I have since sprayed and made gold), but has offered me a Penny Farthing to “decorate” and commissioned my first painting here in Spain (of a bike, what else?).
Yesterday I took my first venture outside of the small town I live in and headed for Spain’s seventh largest city – Murcia. After bus and tram, I climbed the hill up to the impressively modern Fine Art faculty at the University, where I had a pre-arranged meeting with Victoria Santiago Godos. It was a hot and humid day and the concrete blocks and high ceilings of the building provided an industrial cool. I found Victoria in her office. One of the first things she did was point and grin at my bicycle tattoo. Me gusta las bicicletas, I offered, as we embarked on a two-hour discussion in my poor Spanish and her slightly better English. Victoria then revealed that as well as being Vice-Dean of the Facultad de Arte, and fine art lecturer, she also appeared to be one of Spain’s most knowledgeable people on bicycle inspired art. The serendipity was overwhelming as she shared a presentation on the subject she had recently delivered. Pictures of bicycles by almost every 20th century artist I could think of filled the screen and many many more images of bicycles themselves – as sculpture, a canvas on which to paint or as simply a beautiful means of transport.
There is no doubt that aesthetically that the bicycle has a lot to offer. However I am also interested in its political loading. The suffragettes called bicycles “freedom machines” and in the early 1900’s many men took a dim view of women who used them. In the last few weeks, I have been painting pictures of African girls riding to school on bicycles that were provided for them by World Bicycle Relief. The bicycle allows access to education for girls, during a time where girls’ education in Africa is making the headlines as celebrities and world leaders shout #BringBackOurGirls in a bid to find the school girls abducted by Boko Haram.
And here is where I really begin to join the dots. One artist that Victoria told me about really caught my eye. He is Fernando Traverso. In 2001, Fernando Traverso, an Argentinian hospital worker, political activist, and artist, began spray painting a series of 29 life-size bicycle stencils throughout the streets of his Argentinian home town of Rosario as a memorial to 29 friends who were abducted, tortured and killed by the government. Today, there are 350 identical stenciled images painted on buildings throughout Rosario and his “bici” has become an international symbol remembering those who were disappeared, particularly in the Latin American “dirty wars”. His unique stencil was downloaded from the internet and used under his instruction – not in galleries – but as creative political statements. This is gentle, creative social-activism at its best.
It struck me that every bicycle I am painting at the moment is for a missing school girl – not just those taken by Boko Haram, but for those missing from school because they cannot get there. I hope that in my writing, painting and activism I can make a small difference – as did my small tattoo spark such a remarkable conversation.