NuArt ‘22 seeks to heal ‘broken and lost’ urban landscape
Updated: Jul 19
Aberdeen street art festival tackles a wary, post-Covid city
By Jake Roslin
Photo courtesy of Jake Roslin
Aberdeen’s annual street art festival, NuArt, launched on the 11th of June, with the first full programme since before the pandemic. The programme has profound ambitions this year: to patch a local landscape’s ravaged psychogeography.
Run by public-funded Business Improvement District Aberdeen Inspired, the festival made its first tentative brush strokes on the centre’s expanses of grey in 2017. Each summer since, more gable ends, tower blocks, and concrete walls have been adorned with often immense and photorealistic skill, by invited local and international street artists. More often overlooked are the numerous hidden corners, dark doorways, and bricked-up windows which are also added each year. Unlike a traditional exhibition, the works are permanent, or more or less, so as time goes on a little more of the city centre becomes colourfully adorned. This year’s theme is Reconnect.
‘As we emerge blinking from the uncertainty and radical disconnection of the past two years of lockdown and social distancing, it is disorienting to rediscover those social connections and relationships to the people, places and spaces of our cities that have been stretched to the limit and in many cases broken and lost,’ NuArt write on the project’s website. ‘No longer objects of risk, fear, and constant surveillance, we hope NuArt's Reconnect edition can help to dial down the background anxiety that had become part of our daily lives.’
Indeed it is slightly disconcerting walking rarely traversed parts of the city and discovering that, at least outside of the relatively busy shopping axis from Broad Street to Union Square, urban decline, exacerbated by a coronavirus economy, has left plenty of marks. There is no shortage of abandoned shopfronts or derelict corners for the artists to paint. During the Guided Tour on the opening day, it was notable how quiet and still the city is once away from the main roads. It could be as easily Christmas Day as a summer Saturday afternoon, and there’s something slightly surreal, in a good way, about discovering the arrival of a huge new mural as you turn a corner. The level of skill to produce such works at such scale is immense.
It is best to sign up for one of the very knowledgeable tours (though maps showing locations of both new and established creations are available). This is because although the larger works are hard to miss, many more are absolutely tiny.
Subtle figurines hide up on building ledges or cower against street furniture. Porcelain tile and Lego brick infills hide under insalubrious staircases. And, while the simple decoration of what can be considered a rather monochrome city is partly the aim, the social function of graffiti as the people’s art, to comment politically, is firmly on the agenda.
Some works have quite overt messages, others may be more nuanced, or may have different meanings for each individual. There is also a, hopefully, over-reactionary feeling that we should make and enjoy these works while the Government still do, in fact, permit such acts of creative sedition.
The NuArtists will continue to create murals through the summer, with hydraulic cherry-picker trucks ubiquitous through the weekend city and, at least in previous years, a refreshingly ad hoc approach taken by organisers to artists who unexpectedly arrive in Aberdeen and offer to add to the smorgasbord. The owners of the walls and spaces are always consulted first of course, and contracts state art may be subsequently obliterated whenever that owner wishes, but most of the early works are still firmly in place, fading just a little with each sunny day, with the notable exception of those which adorned Aberdeen Market on The Green, demolished for redevelopment last month. Occasionally mistakes are made in checking site ownership: one mosaic of famous Aberdonians, our affable tour guide Taz related, had to be moved tile by tile after an administrative error. It now adorns a stairwell just below Broad Street, aptly metres from where the childhood home of perhaps Aberdeen’s most famous denizen, Lord Byron, once stood.
It is a sign of the programme’s success that the geographical area encompassed by the works has now expanded well beyond the city centre. Indeed, the guided tours are this year split into East and West halves of the city, with the more established works tending to be seen on the western tour.
A programme of symposia, DIY art-making workshops and night time social events also took place over the opening weekend, with the festival maintaining links with the reopening local arts scene, triangulated by Aberdeen Art Gallery, Peacock Visual Arts on Castlegate and Gray’s Art School at RGU. The open air nature of the artworks themselves of course intentionally excludes any academic gatekeeping and the organisers clearly have intentions to promote art for all.
Indeed, possibly one of the greatest achievements of the annual programme is the way, for those of us who’ve now lived in the city for a few years, the murals quickly become an intrinsic part of the city, rather than something which seems added to it. If there have been any objectors over the scheme’s five years, they have been fairly quiet.
As more works appear, Aberdeen becomes not only more colourful but somehow seems more cool and streetwise, a city that can look Glasgow in the eye unflinchingly.
A little like trams, there’s something intrinsically European about the presence of murals in the urban environment; indeed Aberdeen’s NuArt is an offshoot of the original Norwegian festival of the same name, begun in that other coastal outpost of the north, Stavanger, in 2001. The parent organisation, which boasts its makeup of ‘idealistic volunteers, vandals, and bored arts professionals’, admits its situationist and agitprop roots: it has now influenced several international imitators and produces the NuArt Journal: recent issues tackle the questions of creating a documentary archive of Covid-19 graffiti, and of politicians who appropriate street art culture for their own ends.
Guided tours begin from Peacock Arts (East) or Sainsbury’s Holburn Street (West) and mainly run on Saturdays at 1pm over the summer. Tickets £4.50 NUS. Bookings via https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/nuart-aberdeen-29797604297 or if space by turning up.