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The Next Chapter Begins 2 (By Accident!) ...

An Accident, Really ..

st mary of eton hackney wick
In September 1997 Duncan was given a free ticket to an Exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington, London. It was given by someone who worked there and, with too much to do in the parish, he was reluctant to take an afternoon off just to be polite to a friend! However, sheer embarrassment at having to face his friend again without using the ticket, led him to the V&A to see this exhibition, 'Shamiana, The Mughal Tent.'

Already reluctant, Duncan was irritated to arrive at the V & A and
shireen akbar

Shireen Akbar

then have to stumble across hoardes of children all over the floor of a tent in which, for some reason, this exhibition was being held. He then made his way across all these children, drawing and painting on the floor of the large tent, set up in the Pirelli Gardens of the V & A, and found the walls of the tent bedecked with superb textile panels. These had been made by groups of women across the world - there were 56 panels in all, a selection of which had been displayed in the tent. Very soon, he realised that he had a direct connection with these works, or rather, with the woman who had been the inspiration for this collection, Shireen Akbar.

Duncan had known and worked with Shireen in his first parish, St. Dunstan's, Stepney, when he was a curate 20 years earlier and Shireen had been a community worker in the local community
Shamiana panels being made on the floor of the V & A
centre. She then moved to work at the V & A as Head of Adult and Community Education. She soon noticed that treasures, such as those of the fabulous south-east Asian collection of the Nehru Gallery, were rarely visitied by the urban communities whose heritage this was - people such as those she had worked with in Duncan's first and now last parish. She then did a most extraordinary thing in returning to these communities and personally encouraging women she knew (mostly from the sub-Continent) to do things which were outside their experience. Thus she persuaded rather restrictive husbands to let their wives go out, then she taught them how to use the buses and the Underground, and then to find their way to South Kensignton and then to enter the unfamiliar vastness of the V & A Galleries and the Nehru Gallery, in particular.

And then, to their amazement, these women discovered treasures and wonders which, in a real sense, 'belonged' to them and were their heritage. Grumpily trekking out to the V & A Tent, Duncan experienced the same impact, having himself been born in Calcutta and come as an 8 year old Anglo-Indian immigrant to the East End in 1956. It is not obvious to immigrants from many areas of the world that they may have a remarkable historical cultural heritage. It was a 'wake-up' for the immigrant women of Stepney and Bow as it was to the immigrant Vicar of Bow
global makers of Shamiana panels
Global makers of panels
Common. Inspired by Shireen and by the remarkable collection in the Nehru Gallery, the women wanted to create their own contribution to their culture. On the very floor of the V & A, old art inspired new art and using the Tree of Life as a central theme, they sewed 8 textile panels which depicted their aspirations and lives and stories and personal culture. 'Shamiana' were ceremonial tents - sumptuously decorated with silken embroidered panels when used by the Mughal and Rajput courts. The only tents that many of these women had known were refugee tents. They wanted to create panels which would bedeck their kinds of tent.

The original 8 panels were displayed in the V & A and had such an extraordinary impact that the project went 'global' and a total of 56 panels were created by communities and groups of women or every possible origin, all around the world and these were then gathered in for a while to be displayed at the V & A from June - September 1997. (Selections of panels continued to go on tour right up to 2001.) Very sadly, Shireen Akbar died in March 1997 and never saw this astonishing outcome of her work and her inspiration. The Exhibition was a very real tribute to her life.

We have a Tent!
Duncan was deeply touched by the work of these women's hands, by this being part of his heritage, as also by all of this being inspired by Shireen, whom he had known and worked with early in his ministry, but chiefly because it had all had its genesis in the very area in which he had worked and was now working again. He went back to Bow Common quite shaken and moved by what he had seen, but also with some anger, it has to be said. Shireen had recognised how marginalised some people can become in big cities and how whole sections of communities could exist in small circles and never claim what is theirs in other circles, seldom or never visited by them. It remains true that many of us, growing up in places like the East End, never go to Museums or Art or Cultural Collections - even those which are pertinent to them - and even less so to places like Kensington, a 'million' miles from the East End! So, how likely were people in the area in which this project had its genesis, ever to get to see the fruition of this project way across the other side of London?

Duncan felt that these extraordinary, moving and powerful Shamiana panels were never going to be seen except by the usual suspects who visit these galleries (he being a gallery visitor

opening night with mayopr of Tower Hamlets
Shamiana at Bow Common

himself!) and certainly not by most of us in the East End. He wrote, therefore, to the Director of the Nehru Gallery, Dr. Deborah Swallow, expressing his views, mostly to let off steam and with little expectation of being taken seriously. He soon learned that Dr. Swallow is a remarkable person (Director of the Courtauld Institute since 2004) and understood exactly what this disgruntled cleric was grizzling about! She asked, then, what he had in mind. Without thinking too deeply about what he was saying and using a term never used by Maguire and Murray, he rashly declared that 'We have a Tent' in Bow Common! Dr. Swallow came and had a look and took an enormously courageous and generous decision, that it was very appropriate for 30 of the panels to be displayed on the walls of our 'Tent' of a church. [Although Duncan had spoken impulsively about a 'tent,' it is actually not at all far-fetched when the roof and central altar and fabric canopy over the Sacrament Altar are considered, as well as the rhythmic billowing of the perimeter roof line over the ambulatory.]

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