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Metroland Cultures: The Intersection of Art and Community



By Amanda-Jane Reynolds

@iamajreynolds








Photograph from Metroland Cultures' Open Studios

Photograph from Metroland Cultures' Open Studio and Fundraiser Event, June 2024. Photography by Nathaniel Télémaque.


London has many boroughs, but one in particular has caught the attention of A.R.T. – Brent. Brent is home to Metroland Cultures, a charity focusing on the intersection of art and community. By collaborating with the Brent Council, Metroland Cultures was able to take an empty building in Kilburn and open its door to artists, grassroots organisations, and the borough’s community. The charity’s mission is to build, share and support culture in Brent, and what better way to support the arts community than by offering free studio space within their Kilburn hub?


Metroland Cultures is nurturing a cultural haven by offering studios at no expense to the artists and organisations in a city that puts immense financial strain on creativity. Long-term artists in residence work collaboratively with the Brent community, and yearly Peer-to-Peer residencies support artists in developing their practice with the local community. Metroland also runs monthly lunches, open studios, exhibitions, the Brent Art Biennial and cultural programmes that have put Brent on the map.


I spoke to Metroland Cultures’ Director, Lois Stonock, about their incredible work with the community, their diverse programmes, and their continued effort to seek funding. I also discussed Metroland Cultures' positive impact on Other Cinemas’ practice, one of the grassroots organisations at residence run by duo Turab Shah and Arwa Aburawa, and with one of their participating artists, Leena Habiballa.


 

In conversation with the Founder and Director of Metroland Cultures, Lois Stonock:


Photograph from Metroland Cultures' Open Studios

Photograph from Metroland Cultures' Open Studio and Fundraiser Event, June 2024. Photography by Nathaniel Télémaque.


A-J: Metroland is an exciting, and quite frankly, much-needed, charity. What was the catalyst for you to fuel this initiative?


Lois: Metroland was established with a specific purpose: to serve as a mechanism for delivering the Brent Borough of Culture program in 2020 for Brent Council. This programme, a Mayor of London initiative, is based on the concept of a City of Culture (with significantly less funding) for London boroughs. We set up the charity to commission artists and pay practitioners outside the cumbersome council systems, which often slow down the delivery of cultural programmes. This model isn’t new; many local authorities have adopted similar approaches.


The vision for Metroland was to learn from the Borough of Culture programme and ensure that the resources developed over the year would benefit the community. Now, five years later, we continually revisit the community’s history. Brent, and specifically Kilburn, where we are based, has a rich history of resistance and survival among marginalised communities. This history is an exciting foundation for everything we do. We ask ourselves: How can art play a role in sustaining community resources? How can we keep the lights on during times when London neighbourhoods face the hostile effects of austerity and gentrification? How can we learn from and be guided by histories of community organising and resistance in our neighbourhood? How do the foundations of Metroland's studio building, which was previously a community health centre, set intentions for our work now and in the future?


Photograph from Metroland Cultures' Open Studios

Photograph from Metroland Cultures' Open Studio and Fundraiser Event, June 2024. Photography by Nathaniel Télémaque.

 

A-J: While it is clear how positively the arts community has responded to the institute, I’d love to hear how the local community, including schools, have utilised the hub for visits and activities. Can you share some instances and insights?


Lois: I try not to use the word "institution" for Metroland because it suggests something that isn’t embedded in the community, something more concerned with preserving itself than elevating others. We talk about what we do as "stewarding a resource" and supporting others in a way that ensures we aren’t mining communities for content or social capital but nurturing and growing with them.


Metroland hosts artists who are all interested in engaging with the community in various ways. This might involve long-term collaborations with local groups, workshops, or simply creating work that is deeply connected to the community. We try to be inclusive and accommodating, understanding that there are many ways to create art within and with communities. As a result, our building is welcoming and accessible to different groups. For example, we have Heiba Lamara’s zine library and printing press, the Kensal to Kilburn Community Radio Studio run by volunteers, Beta Sound’s sound studio, and Other Cinemas, which offers free screenings. All these spaces are open to the public and host programming by the artists in the building.


We also hold monthly community lunches, bringing around 30 people together to meet the artist community, learn more about what we do, and get involved. Artists in our building work with schools and young people, using our social space and gallery to put on exhibitions and share their work and methods. I see Metroland as a place of friendship, warmth, and openness, focusing on collaboration and nurturing with the community.


Metroland Cultures Community Lunches

Photograph from Metroland Cultures' Open Studio and Fundraiser Event, June 2024. Photography by Nathaniel Télémaque.

 

A-J: Your Artist Studios are free to use and visit, almost like a dream come true! You currently host 19 artists and groups; however, you have mentioned the likelihood of closure due to funding cuts. With all the obstacles you must face, what are your strategies to help secure ongoing funding for the building?


Lois: Studio space remains a major hurdle for Brent's artists. While the borough has three studio buildings, affordability is still a barrier for underrepresented and working-class artists. Efforts by the Creative Land Trust, working groups, and the Mayor of London fall short, leaving visual artists priced out of their own community. These schemes often rely on artists building their commercial practice to pay rent. The work we support at Metroland builds a community resource that shares, preserves, documents, and supports practices of resistance and care within our community. This isn’t a commercial practice that will necessarily generate rent, but it might create new approaches to healing with a women’s refuge centre, support unheard voices through a cinema, or build a structure for a food bank.


Metroland Cultures Studios

Metroland Studios, Photo by Nathaniel Télémaque


I feel responsible for understanding this type of practice and responding to it with the infrastructures we build and provide. We need to address the gulf between funding for arts and social change and the infrastructure supporting commercial practices. For us, the solution isn’t affordable space; it’s free space. This is the only way to break down class barriers in London and disempower the art market. I want to invest in artists who change society, not just those who create totems for the rich.


Therefore, I am advocating for systemic change. I am also applying to trusts and foundations to help us survive. We haven’t ruled out finding a new building that aligns with our values. Essentially, we are trying everything.


Metroland Cultures' Studio Building in Kilburn, Brent, London

Metroland Studios, Photo by Nathaniel Télémaque

 

A-J: Could you talk us through some of your arts and culture programmes, which you run alongside the Studios? What events do you have coming up?


Lois: Beyond the studios and the artist development programs in Kilburn, we also commission the Brent Biennial, a contemporary art festival in civic and community spaces across the borough. The next iteration, curated by Annie Jael Kwan, will be in 2025. The Biennial features exhibitions, public artworks, performances, and discursive events, fostering dialogue between residents and artists working at the forefront of the community. We also create major new commissions and site-specific projects that empower communities to share their stories, explore their creativity, and build stronger neighbourhood bonds.

We have a year-round commissions programme, which is about site-specific projects that empower communities to share their stories, explore their creativity, build stronger bonds within their neighbourhoods and redefine how and where art is experienced. Recent projects include collaborations with artist Sean Roy Parker and Sufra NW London Food Bank, as well as the Asian Women’s Resource Centre with artists Amanda Camenisch and Therese Westin.


Installation Image of Other Cinemas' Installation View at Brent Biennial 2022

Turab Shah and Arwa Aburawa, 'I Carry It With Me Everywhere' (2022). installation view. Commissioned as part of the Brent Biennial 2022, 'In the House of my Love' (8 July - 77 September 2022)


Finally, we are committed to investing in Brent’s future. Our Metroland Young Associates program helps young people develop the skills, experience, and confidence they need to thrive in creative careers. This paid alternative education program for 18-24-year-olds includes 12 weekly workshops where participants gain industry skills, meet professionals, work with mentors, and collectively produce their own event, all while being paid the London Living Wage.

 

AJR: Biennials, exhibitions, the gallery, and community events all gather personal histories whilst constantly making new ones. Will there be an archive to preserve material generated by and for Metroland?


Lois: This is a great question and something we’ve been discussing a lot recently. Over the last five years, Metroland Cultures has become a meeting point for communities and artists through our studio building, visual arts Biennial, community commissions series, international residency, and development program for emerging artists. We are keen to establish an archive and a platform for sharing programming related to socially engaged artistic practice and community support. We aim to create a space that collates and shares methods at the intersection of social change and artistic work, building a national community of practice. So, my short answer is not yet, but it is a need we have identified and something we want to do in the future.



Metroland Cultures' Studios Office

Metroland Studios, Photo by Nathaniel Télémaque

 

A-J: What message would you like to convey to potential supporters about the importance of Metroland Cultures?


Lois: Metroland is committed to building a new type of organisation, one that is fit for purpose and the future. For us, this means creating a space that can hold difference, dialogue, and constant learning. It is a place that thoughtfully supports and nurtures artists from various backgrounds, addressing inequality through the structures we build. All our programmes aim to learn how to collaborate and stand in solidarity with our community, responding to their needs. If there are any funders out there interested in supporting this future, please come and see us and learn more about what we do.



 

In conversation with the duo Other Cinemas, Turab Shah and Arwa Aburawa:



Other Cinemas Duo, Arwa Aburawa and Turab Shah

Image courtesy of Other Cinmeas


A-J: Metroland Cultures offers a space and community that artists dream of. Could you walk us through a typical day in the studios?


Other Cinemas: We are Arwa Aburawa and Turab Shah, a filmmaking duo who run Other Cinemas, a Brent-based project that exists to create better and more equitable ways of making, sharing, and learning film. At Metroland, we run a community cinema focused on celebrating the work of Black and non-White filmmakers and a year-long free film school for young aspiring filmmakers of Colour. We also make our own films and documentaries on race and climate change. 


A typical week for us involves organising evening film screenings for the local community, film school sessions for our current cohort of film students and working on film commissions. The studios also boast a radio station, printing press, and independent publishing archive and there are endless opportunities for collaborations between the resident artists’ practices. 



Other Cinemas' Film School, Metroland Cultures

Image courtesy of Other Cinmeas

 

A-J: How has having a free studio space and access to diverse programmes impacted your work?


Other Cinemas: Our work is rooted in our diverse neighbourhoods in North West London, some of the most racially diverse in the country but chronically underserved in terms of cultural provisions. Historically, we’ve resorted to conducting our work nomadically across multiple venues in Brent, given that permanent spaces for this kind of work are expensive and difficult to access. Having built a strong community of local audiences and creatives, we’re now able to bring them together in a dedicated space where we can continue to serve and collaborate with this network. 


Having a free studio has added value to our cultural work, helped us create an identity around the space, and given us greater control over the running of our programmes. Our dream is for the community to feel like our space is a second home to them. In the context of the wider loss of community spaces, having access to free space in Metrolands has felt like a real opportunity to create and provide new spaces for communities to build relationships and be culturally enriched. 


Installation Image of Other Cinemas' Installation View at Brent Biennial 2022

Turab Shah and Arwa Aburawa, 'I Carry It With Me Everywhere' (2022). installation view. Commissioned as part of the Brent Biennial 2022, 'In the House of my Love' (8 July - 77 September 2022)

 

A-J: What project did you come to Metroland with, and how has it developed since being at the studio?


Other Cinemas: Other Cinemas existed as a nomadic project before settling into Metroland Studios. Since being at the studio, our work has expanded - we’ve been able to increase the regularity of our film screenings and community gatherings, and we’ve started a new monthly film club (Majlis), which is co-run by our film school students. Our team has also expanded, and it has been wonderful to include more voices in the work we do. We will be launching a new exhibition, ‘Collective Imaginings’, spotlighting the work of our film school students from July 18th until August 4th within the space. This is all made possible by having a space at Metroland Studios. 


Our studio has also become a meeting space for our communities and is essential to building a sense of community and connection, as well as a deepened connection to the neighbourhood. Regular meetings in a physical space have meant the possibility of fostering a sense of understanding, kinship, and intergenerational dialogue. 


Other Cinemas' Film School Student, Metroland Cultures

Image courtesy of Other Cinmeas

 

In conversation with Leena Habiballa from Other Cinemas’ Film School:



A-J: Could you describe how your artwork has been influenced by the community at Metroland?


Leena: I am a former student of the Other Cinemas Film School and am currently a member of the team. I feel incredibly blessed that my journey into filmmaking began with Other Cinemas. Through monthly workshops, filmmaking tasks, and discussions, Other Cinemas has offered me a generous framework to develop my voice and wrestle with creative fear barriers in order to cultivate an honest relationship with the medium. I’m grateful for the freedom and space the film school has given me to think more critically about the place, purpose, and politics of film and cinema in the world. 


Being part of the vibrant film community that Turab and Arwa have cultivated and the wider Metroland community has been life changing. It has taught me a great deal about the importance of building relationships, creating collectively, and what is possible creatively when the financial pressures to maintain a physical working space are eased. 

 

 


 

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