“I love Brent!” says Roy Mehta. “It’s an amazing place.” This isn’t something you hear often; in fact, you usually don’t hear much about Brent at all. A large, residential borough in north west London, it doesn’t have the cache of more fashionable districts and, though it’s inner-city, it’s not central either. When Mehta was based in Brent in the late 80s to early 90s, his friends would say he was deep in suburbia.
But if Brent is suburban, it’s anything but boring. It has the most diverse population in London (the most recent official census found that 149 languages were spoken in the borough), and is one of the most multicultural cities in Europe. In 1991, when Mehta was mid-way through his five-year project documenting the buzz of the area, 45 per cent of the population identified as minority ethnic, including 17.2 per cent Indian, 10.2 per cent Black Caribbean, and 9 per cent Irish.
It’s a diversity that comes across in Mehta’s new book, Revival – London 1989-1993. His rough plan had been to look at religion in Black and Irish communities, but the project evolved to include images taken on the street, in peoples’ homes, and even in pubs and bars. In Revival, he shows how these communities and more lived side by side, overlapped, and sometimes intermingled.
Mehta knew this multiculturalism intimately. He grew up in Brent and his parents had also been migrants, moving to London from India. “People ask me how I was able to walk into all these different communities, but I never thought about it like that,” he says. “To me it was all one community. It was Brent!” He adds: “Coming from a second-generation immigrant family, I grew up with the same background, so it just felt natural. It was what I’ve always loved about London.”
“Brexit changed so many things about how I looked at England and Britain. The country has gone through a period of doubt, there’s a sense of vulnerability about the question of identity and Britishness. It made me start to question my own identity, for the first time since the 1970s.”
Mehta was studying at Farnham College when he started shooting the images for the project. Back then, it was a photography hotspot with tutors including Peter Kennard, Martin Parr and Paul Graham, plus visiting guest-speakers such as Chris Killip. Inspired by Killip’s long-term work in Newcastle, Mehta was happy to keep going with his project for years – shooting so much, in fact, that he’s still yet to scan some of the negatives.
He knew he had something but he also felt that the project was unwieldy – too diffuse to pin down, and too far gone beyond its original remit. In fact, he laughs, he thought of it as “a big mess in the attic”. But then the Brexit vote happened and his father died, prompting him to return to the archive. “Brexit changed so many things about how I looked at England and Britain,” he says. “The country has gone through a period of doubt, there’s a sense of vulnerability about the question of identity and Britishness. It made me start to question my own identity, for the first time since the 1970s.
“Then, my father passed away and I went back to India with his ashes,” he continues. “It was the first time I’d gone back in about 10 years, and in Mumbai I started to think how it could have been my home, if my parents had made a different decision. We went back to my father’s hometown and found the house he grew up in, and I thought about that epic movement, the migration of so many people of his generation.”
This thinking sparked off a new documentary portrait project, in which Mehta photographs younger people in Mumbai in a bid to explore second-generation immigration and the resulting cross-cultural fluidity. These questions also sent him back to the “mess in the attic” and, when Brent was declared London’s 2020 borough of culture, he wanted to get involved. Sharing a few of his images with the local council, he was awarded a Brent2020 culture grant to create an exhibition. Revival is the book he decided to create to go alongside it.
The exhibition is curated by Laura Noble and will be shown at The Library in Willesden Green in Brent. It has been postponed until March 2022 owing to Covid-19, but the book has been published. Revival includes texts by luminaries such as Mark Sealy, director of Autograph, and author and playwright Caryl Phillips. It’s also an approachable, affordable publication, put together by Hoxton Mini Press. Copies have been sent to local libraries and colleges, allowing a wide cross section of people to consider Brent’s history and identity, as well as feeling of commonality in Mehta’s work.
“I worked on the edit over the first lockdown, and that affected how I saw it,” he says. “I was looking for that sense of community and connection, as we were all experiencing such social isolation. But I was also thinking about how many things are universal – the universality of human experience.”
Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy