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Pioneering October Gallery celebrates 40 years

'William Burroughs stood by the door looking just like William Burroughs. I couldn’t believe it, I thought I was seeing an apparition.'

13 March, 2020 — By Angela Cobbinah

WHO would have thought that a converted Victorian school building in Bloomsbury would become the hub of a quiet revolution in the art world?

This was exactly what a group of young idealists dreamed of when they opened the October Gallery 40 years ago with the declaration that it would be showcasing “artists from around the planet”.

While London largely ignored art being made outside the West, the October defied that cultural insularity to unveil the talents of little-known artists from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania – in other words, most of the world.

These days the likes of metal work sculptor El Anatsui and painters Kenji Yoshida, Ablade Glover and Aubrey Williams command the international stage and are as likely to be on display in our grand, publicly funded institutions as they are in the humble October Gallery, where they were championed early on.

The dreamers recently gathered at the former St George Martyr schoolhouse, off Queen Square, to launch Dream No Small Dream, a visual feast of a book telling the story of 40 years of thinking big.

Art historian Niru Ratnam told the gathering: “In 1979 [when it opened] the October Gallery was in quite an isolated position, but for 40 years it has been working, quietly and consistently, to say interesting art just doesn’t happen here. I want to congratulate the art world – they have caught up with the October Gallery. They have finally realised that interesting art takes place outside of the western world.”

Elizabeth Lalouschek, who has been the gallery’s artistic director since 1987, recalled first meeting beat generation poet William Burroughs, whose exhibition of “cut-up” art also chimed in with the October’s overall vision of “Transvangarde”, or trans-cultural avant-garde.

“William Burroughs stood by the door looking just like William Burroughs. I couldn’t believe it, I thought I was seeing an apparition,” she said.

Among the book’s contributors are three of the gallery’s pioneer members, Chili Hawes, Gerard Houghton and John Allen, who look back at its genesis and early years.

In the foreword, Eden project founder and regular visitor Tim Smit describes the gallery as “being the forerunner of a genuine cultural revolution”. Guests at the event included the US photographer Carol Beckwith, Gus Casely Hayford, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, and Chris Spring, former director of the British Museum’s African Galleries.

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