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Journal of Visual Culture

Mariana Martin, Summer 2002

Brick Lane Masala, Summer 2002

Brick Lane is but one street in a city layout that necessitates a pocket "mini’ mapbook the size of many paperback best sellers, and like many other streets in the warren of London’s urban grid, this home of "little Bangla-town" doesn’t even extend its length in one straight line, instead taking several eccentric doglegs in its scant half-mile course. Yet this street is a microcosm of the cultures colliding and coinciding in this improbable mega-city, not only today, but historically as well. Brick Lane serially has been a haunt of Jack the Ripper and his victims, Orthodox Jews, Bangladeshi immigrants, and in more recent years, yuppies.

I came to Brick Lane this summer curious how this predominately Muslim neighborhood, dominated by the Jamme Mosjid (recently famous for its Al Qaeda recruiting abilities) might have changed in the year since my last visit--much as Western-Islamic relations have been forcibly brought to global attention in that span. I was hopeful that I, an American woman, would be received with the same hospitality that I had been the year before, but I was cautious in my dress and in choosing when my camera came out of my shopper’s bag. There might be reasons beyond recent events for my appearance to generate hostility--yuppies and interior design boutiques serving them have begun encroaching on this immigrant enclave since the London docklands went from slum warehousing to hip luxury housing in the mid nineties.

My project this summer was simple: photograph this street and its businesses, its residents and visitors at work and at play, and look for the boundaries between the yuppies, the historically Orthodox Jewish population, and both the religious Muslims and the more secularly inclined of the Bangladeshi community. Could I tell by looking at a shop exterior that it was across the road from the mosque, or down in the Jewish area near Bethnal Green, or part of the cluster of fleeting small Bangladeshi businesses all offering Hindi films of suspect provenance and dirt-cheap international phone cards? The answer was more complicated than I had expected.

Although the varied communities that make up the street display their cultural memberships in store windows, such as the myriad-hued sari fabrics of Sarshire Ltd or the Bollywood film posters of B2B (Fig. 1), there are no strict zones of similarity in Brick Lane: the closest approximation to that one can draw would be that many of the secularly-oriented Bangladeshi businesses cluster at the end closer to Aldgate East tube station, and the beigel bakeries are nearer to Bethnal Green. But an art gallery showing the controversial German art exhibit of plastic-coated cadavers is within sight of the mosque, and modern furniture stores rub shoulders with bargain buffet curry houses. The street is both an alien landscape and a gritty, thoroughly East London Street. The dingy brick facades of the shop buildings are largely uniform, betraying little of their contents until one passing by is just upon the window display and can suddenly be plunged into a world of specially-designed mannequins for displaying saris (Fig. 2), as at The Modern Saree Center. Standard London street signs coexist with the same names again in South Asian scripts (Fig. 3).

Walk quickly through this neighborhood without glancing at the microcosms of the store windows, and one would never guess this is the unlikely one-stop place in London to worship at a conservative mosque, party all night at one of London’s most popular nightclubs, grab a beigel with lox at 4:30 am (Fig. 4), or buy Hindi films with scantily-clad heroines and stunning musical numbers to the tunes blaring from curry-house doors.

--Marianna Martin, 2002

 

 

 



Fig. 1

 


Fig. 2

 


Fig. 3

 


Fig. 4