Tiger Bay’s latest renaissance

John Briggs on a new exhibition which underscores the contrast between glitzy Cardiff Bay and the older community that lies behind the waterfront

Tiger Bay is the evocative and legendary name for that part of Cardiff’s community found along Bute Street, halfway between the city centre and the water’s edge. As any Cardiffian will tell you, the area has a chequered history. An exhibition of photographs and murals currently underway at the Old Library in The Hayes, Cardiff, provides a glimpse of Tiger Bay’s colourful past.

Of course, in more recent times, Tiger Bay has again experienced a rebirth which, in fact, is typical of its past. The change is one of human makeup due to an influx of new residents and in particular the growth of its Muslim population. Older residents, many of whom have lived in the area since the 1940s and 1950s, have found new neighbours, new relationships and a new ethnic balance. But what Butetown residents of all descriptions have witnessed is the massive regeneration of Cardiff that surrounds them. At the same time they are members of statistically the poorest community in Wales.

Tiger Bay Renaissance is concerned with this imbalanced scenario. In itself it represents a renaissance, an artistic initiative inspired by present-day conditions in Tiger Bay, its history, and the lives and needs of its residents.

Leon Charles, the exhibition’s curator, is a video artist and rapper-poet who has produced some truly memorable video footage, including music, interviews and reminiscences with residents. There is also vintage film from a 1993 Butetown Reunion at the Coal Exchange. His work is taken from a wider ongoing project Beyond the Barrage, a multi-dimensional educational resource with ‘Coexistence’ as its theme, which Charles is taking to schools throughout Wales.

Kyle Legall’s glorious Tiger Bay murals, represented in a fine series of still photographs, have graced Loudoun Square since 2008. The 44 panels, which make this the longest mural in Britain, tell the story of Tiger Bay through the centuries highlighting crucial events and important characters. Another two panoramas on canvas, in grungy, orange and black, depict St. Mary Street and the icons of Cardiff Bay. The present-day Cardiff Bay may be fashionable, but can it match the colour and diversity of Tiger Bay’s history?

Mike Chapple and Ben Hussein bring another vital dimension of contrast and irony to the exhibition. Their colour photographs illustrate the transformation of Cardiff from older edifices such as Chapple’s Garage and Spillers Records to the monoliths of the new St Davids 2 shopping mall and its flagship John Lewis department store. Just as importantly, they stand in stark contrast to the lack of development and the stagnation of Butetown’s inadequate shopping facilities in an area where, apparently, some 4,000 would-be new residents have applied for accommodation.

My own traditional black and white photographs focus on local residents, professionals and others who earn their livelihood in the Loudoun Square shopping area, once the heart of Tiger Bay. The overall picture is one of great human diversity, and vitality. There is a positive outlook on the locals’ faces. What a contrast this makes with the rundown condition of the facilities they must use, especially the 1960s era shops with boarded-up former flats above them. Apparently these will be rebuilt, but when? The community feels it has been waiting far too long for this to happen.

Cardiff City Centre and Cardiff Bay provide massive evidence of the city’s modernisation, However, Tiger Bay and Butetown, with their proud history and contribution to the city’s historic growth, are lagging far behind. Is the redevelopment of Cardiff Bay a harbinger indication of better things to come for the old community? Or will it remain a nagging, indefinite irony for those who live there and who witness daily the juxtaposition of Cardiff’s wealthiest development since the 19th century with theirs, the most deprived community in Wales?

The Tiger Bay Renaissance exhibition is at The Old Library, The Hayes, until 6 June. To view the poster click here.

John Briggs was born in Minnesota in 1947 and came to live in Wales in 1974. He is the author of 3 photodocumentaries published by Seren: two devoted to Cardiff 'Before the Deluge' (2002)/'Taken in Time' (2005) and one to Newport 'Newportrait' (2009)

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