River Great Ouse project at showcase exhibition

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An exhibition celebrating the River Great Ouse in Bedford will open at the Basement @ Bunyan this week and will culminate in a showcase at the River Festival in July.

After a year of artistic exploration and engagement with diverse communities, the Bedford River Project, supported using public funding from Arts Council England, will share its work at an exhibition which opens at the Basement @ Bunyan tomorrow (Tuesday).

It will then move to the Higgins Bedford from Monday, 20 May before its grand finale at the River Festival on the banks of the River Great Ouse.

The exhibition will feature emerging and established artists from the local community, who were commissioned to create works of art inspired by the river. 

Among the roster of commissioned artists are Anthea Barclay (Poet and Creative Director), who also serves as Project Director, Leon Barclay (musician), Anita Powell (painter/podcaster), Paul-Michael Berwise-Ebanks (photographer), Antaya Lendore (illustrator), Anne-Marie Abbate (mixed media), and Hazera Forth (poet and podcaster).

Lead creative producer and artist Anthea Davis-Barclay said the project was personal to her on several levels.

“As a black-led project, we have embraced our role as stewards of our natural environment. Our goal is to champion conservation efforts and inspire people from all cultures to appreciate our natural surroundings,” she said.

“I live close to the river and find it so beautiful and calming.  The peace and health benefits it offers are something we should celebrate more.”

Hazera Forth, a Bedford-based, British Bengali poet said, “I’ve been drawn closer to my heritage while navigating a culture and its relationship to water and rivers.

“Bengalis, brought with them an immense respect in how they interact with the river in Bedford.”

The Bedford River Project began in the Spring of 2023 as a multi-disciplinary arts initiative supported by public funding from the Arts Council England.

At the heart of the project is a commitment to creativity, diversity and conservation. Participating artists have shared their passion and expertise through a series of workshops with schools and community groups. 

“The commissioned artists visited four schools in Bedford and presented poetry, sculpture, illustrations and different creative arts. After the workshops, the students responded by making their own work, like poetry, sculptures, 2-D arts and photography in the project-led competitions,” Ms Davis-Barclay said. 

“Central to our purpose was celebrating the children, no matter what social background or ethnicity and giving them a sense of achievement and connection with the River Great Ouse.”

One of the schools involved in the project was Camestone Primary School.

Teacher Maxine Owen said that the children were very enthusiastic about creating the art pieces. 

“The workshops inspired the children to create pieces linked to the river and the issues it faces,” she said.

“They worked with Anne-Marie Abbate using mixed media and even mod-roc to create a 3D bird to create artwork. They also wrote poetry or a story based on the river inspired by the amazing storytelling of Anthea.

“A trip down the river on the John Bunyan Community Boat helped them to appreciate our local environment and the plants and creatures that live there.

“Once their final pieces were created, we held an exhibition in school where the parents of Year 5 children and all of the other year groups visited to see their work.”

The grand finale of the Bedford River Project will take place at the 2024 Bedford River Festival.