Richard Downes: socially-engaged, activist poet on a mission with Collage Arts and Outside In


Richard Downes became a DAO Associate Artist in summer 2018. We wanted to create an opportunity to seed-fund the artistic development for a small number of artists and see where it took us. Richard talks here about his ambition to take on a role as an emerging socially engaged activist poet.

side portrait of an older man framed by steel girders

Richard Downes at the Jerwood Solo Exhibitions

Basically it became time to take some time out for me. I have believed for a long time that if the time is right to do something then I should just do it. Why go back to school. Because the wind is blowing in the right direction. My activism usually focuses on disability issues. I have worked in advocacy and engagement within the movement for 25 years. Contributed poetry to DAO weekly for more that 2 years. Because of DAO I started performing.

Work and me were increasingly becoming a mismatch. Blairism’s turn to professionalism, transparency and accountability raised the bar on data entry, took me away from doing what I was good at. Talking with and supporting people, enabling them through my personal skills and training abilities.

Someone once said you are getting to the age when you are unemployable. I don’t believe that but I have looked forward to ageing and working through other forms of discrimination. So, now became the right time. I had my poems. I can take a photo. I had my political position, knowledge of an issue and a fundamental need to write. So, where do I go next? I’m so glad I decided this was the course. It is full of obstacles of course but right now this is where I want to be: spreading the word, reaching out to people, making things happen and communities grow.

A lot has happened since summer 2018. The highlights however have been in the small things. Being trusted, being remembered, having people come up to me and say nice things. A pat on the back goes a long way, a nod, a sign of appreciation. Reaching out to someone for support and finding they are there for you. These are the things I value. Where does it happen? I’m sure you want me to tell you about REaD Rhymes Live and Realm so here goes.

A blue tinted image of the back of a man, standing

Richard Downes watching the digital messages created by Jenny Holzer in the Artist Room at Tate Modern

I remember sitting with Colin Hambrook trying to get a zine together. He asked me if REaD Rhymes would become like a character, a calling card. I didn’t think so at the time but he had planted another seed.

Shortly afterwards I started putting together the live aspect through Collage Arts who had asked me to put on poetry events with a disability arts angle. I had been supporting Survivors Poetry as a contributor since August last year so they and DAO became a source of finding poets to play with.

The other biggie is Outside In’s Realm residency for a London based emerging artist to work in collaboration with other artists. I read DAO. I find out about things. I simply put myself up as an artist who uses photography and poetry. I sent them a couple of photos and links to where they could find their associated poems on DAO and suddenly I’m being offered work.

I would say one of my biggest challenges to developing has been about confidence. I’m always happy to put myself down. On the one hand its disempowerment over a life time. On the other it’s a skill. Does that sound surprising. In advocacy you need other people to tell their stories. You cannot provide support unless they do. All an advocate does is (and some might find this belittling) is act as a cipher for others to get what they want and need.

Advocacy works best if people can tell their own stories. Some times you just need to sit in a room with someone and the work is done. You may get some gratitude for that, but you give it right back. Nothing to do with me. You told your own story. You got what you wanted. The skill is in creating the space for someone else to excel.

The other difficulty has been working. I’ve always thought that if you are doing something you enjoy then you are not working. You are living. I have learned there are aspects of curating that is all about working. Putting in the sweat, putting in the hours, dealing with people, soothing them, placating them, getting well pissed off with their ways, having to trawl around to fill the poet spots on a bill, being accountable to an audience, and feeling stressed again, but then I fall back to thinking well, it was worth it, it mean’t something, an event happened and people got something out of it. The space was created again.

a purple abstract image

Realm. Image © Richard Downes

Disability Arts and Community Arts have been at the heart of my journey. Its all about people. The people giving, the people receiving. I was fortunate to work in a Deaf and Disabled Peoples’ Organisation that actively wanted to support Disability Arts and culture.

We created great line-ups, had great events. I know people still talk about what we did. Again the age thing. I was lucky enough to be able to employ the Workhouse Cabaret acts and develop relationships with people like Johnny Crescendo and Wanda Barbara, work as an activist with Dennis Queen. Julie McNamara was always magnificent. I’m not sure if any of them impacted on my work other than through Disability Equality Training but they showed what could be done. I’m now feeling guilty about the names I’ve missed out but if you are an artist and you have taken steps to be active, count yourself in.

Then of cause there are all those artists who have simply shown me a kindness. That first gig in Farnham with Colin Hambrook, Wendy Young and Akila Richards. They couldn’t have done more to welcome a Johnny come lately new kid in town. Debbie McNamara of Survivors’ Poetry. The list is endless. Plus I have to give a quick nod to Yoko Ono for all the instructions and activist inspirations.

Currently Realm is one of my main focuses. We all know what its like. The guys and gals who receive so many rejections and then someone calls and says you’re in. You’re no longer the guy waiting in line, waiting to get picked for the team. You are no longer the lonely, inept, loser no one wants to play with. You are in the team. You have a role. There are things that you can do, things you can contribute. You are also looking for the chance to learn, add to what you already have.

You have people around who want to give too. I believe this is the first time that CGP London, Outside In and Bethlem Gallery have come together with the idea to get three artists to collaborate and achieve something from the basis of going into a room, not knowing each other, not knowing what they are doing other than making something. So, you get gallery support too. You build a team and the only thing you know is it’s all going to be champion and amazing and it is. I started with my own premise and felt it changing. So, I go into the Realm being one person and come out an improved version of the same person. Brilliant.

I want a bit of following a path and seeing where it leads mixed with some artistic ambition. I will remain socially engaged. Ambitious to get the word out, and to experience new audiences, new places, new towns, new cities, new people, new faces, but also ambitious to remain myself, engaged in my practice, open to where the path leads.

There is a door into the Realm. There is a door out. There is the fun of being with my fellow artists Keith and Hazel, my mentor Julia, the gallery folk but there is also something else coming up. I’ve offered to put on a reading for the Realm and Outside In have asked me to provide a reading for their patrons day. Their patrons are bankers. I must be accountable to Outside In but also accountable to myself. The fun is building and I don’t know where it’s going. We’ll see.

Realm is an experimental residency-based commission between a trio of London based artists Hazel Brill, Richard Downes and Mr X.
Open: 21 March – 28 April | Gallery by the Pool, 1 Park Approach, Southwark Park, London SE16 2UA
Exhibition open: Wednesday to Sunday, 11am-5pm
Click on this link to find out more

REaD Rhymes happens at the Karamel Restaurant, Wood Green, London, on the last Friday of the month, until June 2019. Come along some time.
Click on this link to find out more.