A Mural to Remember
If you are looking for swathes of colour and vibrant celebration in the heart of Dalston, you could do worse than stand opposite the Hackney Peace Carnival Mural on Dalston Lane. After 23 years the mural still looks impressive: its colours are remarkably fresh and the pure busy-ness of the figures and setting portrayed in the mural is superbly uplifting.
This uplifting mood was what the mural intended to provide when it was planned in 1983. These were the heady, intensely political days of the early 1980s: Thatcher was stamping her mark as prime minister, the world was often a frightening place due to the ‘Cold War’, and there had been riots in Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth and even Dalston in 1981. But the mural was not just a response to the riots; its references are wider than that. It reflects the numerous interests, political forces and pressure groups of those times. Almost every left-of-centre social concern is represented in the mural: anti-capitalism; anti-nuclear proliferation; greenpeace; the miners’ strike; the peace movement. And, of course, the mural portrays ‘multi-culturalism’ in action. Although it could be said that some of these concerns are now being addressed and others have become mainstream, in those times the images associated with these ideas were new and enthralling.
In the middle of the US and Russian nuclear stand-off, the mural shows Hackney as a nuclear free zone (which it had declared itself to be by this time). The Navarino Mansions can be seen in the background and CND, trade union and church peace banners are paraded. In the centre a huge imposing double-headed rat/shark figure is seen grasping broken nuclear weapons, biting the British pound, smoking a cigar and bedecked in money chains and the dollar sign, all linking the arms race with materialism. Uncle Sam is also in evidence, walking along on stilts in the background, along with other symbols such as a dove and the figure of hooded death. A coal miner is there as part of the band, a British Rail worker is there, Ghandi is there, and Mandela is there. And the familiar slogans are there too: ‘Unite for Peace’; ‘Jobs not Bombs’; ‘No More Hiroshimas’.
However, this is not a fantasy scene, dreamed up with no context; this is a portrayal of the floats, music bands and parade of the 1983 Hackney Peace Carnival. As such, its focus is on the very real threats to peace at that time, but also on a very real community’s celebration of peace.
Amongst the throng are the faces of the artists. Ray Walker is there, on the left framed by ribbons, and Anna Walker, Ray’s wife, is there in the bottom right corner. Tragically – at the age of 39 – Ray died before work on the actual painting began. Ray had battled with bureaucrats to get permission to start work on the wall and using his detailed sketches of the Peace Carnival, he came up with an overall idea and plan. The mural, mainly painted by Mike Jones, a friend of Ray’s and a mural painter himself, and with Anna’s assistance, is derived from the final large sketch that Ray produced. Mike travelled to Germany to purchase the permanent silicate-based paint, which was specially created to last the life of the wall itself. Ray was also one of the collaborating artists who painted the anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street mural and the themes of the Dalston piece appealled to him greatly as his concerns with social issues were passionately felt. The style of the work echoes trade union marches and is influenced by Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera: a rich mix of realism and social vision which can also be seen in the Cable Street mural.
The mural was funded by the GLC and Hackney Council. Specifically, it was Tony Banks MP (Chairman of the GLC at the time) who gave the go ahead to the work. He managed to allocate funding for this and two other public art murals in London to mark the GLC’s ‘Peace Year’ in 1983. He was there at the opening ceremony along with the then Mayor of Hackney, Dorice (Betty) Shanks.
Nowadays, the Hackney Peace Carnival Mural can be seen as a double memorial. It is a memorial to the talent and sheer hard graft and persistence of Ray Walker. As such, it is a deeply personal piece of public art. But it also remembers the vivid community it portrays: the people of 1983 who took to the streets to demand peace in a troubled time. It is a true memorial.
With thanks to Anna Walker, Mike Jones and Ron Foley.
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