The Yorkshire exhibition using postcards to explore impact of Brexit

PICS: Tony Johnson
PICS: Tony Johnson
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An exhibition using postcards to explore the impact of Brexit on the nation has gone display in Barnsley. Yvette Huddleston went to find out more.

Whichever side of the fence you’re on in the Brexit debate, there’s no denying it has been a trying couple of years since the EU Referendum.

The country feels more divided than it has ever been and the national discourse appears to be getting angrier and less respectful. As with many tumultuous or difficult events – and there have been several in recent times – visual artists and other creative people often find a way to respond. And it is something we should all be grateful for as those responses are frequently a means to greater understanding and empathy. That is certainly the aim behind a new exhibition which has just opened at the Barnsley Civic.

Me & EU: Postcards from Post-EU Britain is the brainchild of designers Nathan Smith and Sam T Smith (no relation) who initiated the project shortly after the Referendum in June 2016. “The morning of the result and the sudden realisation that Brexit was becoming a reality shocked and saddened us in a way that a political decision hadn’t done so previously,” they say. “We wanted to dispel this idea that Britain was an inward-looking country and look outwards to unite people at a time of such division and to do something positive in an otherwise negative atmosphere.”

They soon became aware that this view was shared by many in the creative community and they began by approaching their contacts across a variety of backgrounds including illustrators, photographers, copywriters, typographers, sign-writers, painters, designers, students and lecturers. Word of mouth and social media spread the message further and the response was overwhelming. “We were surprised and very encouraged. It highlighted to us just how passionately the creative community felt about Brexit.”

Eventually the pair landed on the idea of postcards as the perfect succinct and eye-catching form of communication and began to develop the project around that theme. “By their nature, postcards allowed people to create an intimate connection on a one-to-one level and they talk of travel, of crossing borders, and they strike up conversation in a really personal way.” Nathan and Sam then presented people with a simple brief. “We asked them to express their thoughts and feelings towards Brexit via an enticing, thought-provoking image on the front of the postcard and through a personal message on the back.” Those messages communicate a variety of emotions – many are quiet and heartfelt, others are dissenting and defiant but together they form a very powerful and eloquent narrative of a country in transition. As the British government formally triggered Article 50, in a poignant and significant gesture, 116 postcards were sent out across all 27 remaining EU countries.

Also involved in the project is Barnsley-born designer Craig Oldham who eventually published all the postcards in autumn 2017 in a book under his own imprint Common Practices. Each card is reproduced with a perforated edge and is blank on the back, ready for someone to share their own thoughts. “As a book the project takes on a different role and life,” says Oldham.

“It serves not only to document a collective view of creative thoughts on Brexit, but most importantly opens up and extends the project to a wider audience and into a dialogue with others. It continues the discussion, evolves it, and pushes it into places beyond the creative industries.”

The show in Barnsley features over a hundred postcards and presents a unique snapshot of a moment in time where the personal and political collide.

There can be few people in the UK who don’t have a view on Brexit. Indeed, with people’s faith in politicians and government at an all-time low, families and friendships fractured due to differences in opinion on Brexit and related issues, it feels as though there is little cause for optimism. Though perhaps projects such as these might offer a way forward to allow the country to heal. Nathan and Sam certainly hope so.

“The project was set up as a way to decrease the divisions created between us by Brexit, not only between the UK and the EU but also within the country. Together the postcards form a united voice with an underpinning spirit of humour and positivity. There is a really warming feeling of solidarity. It was amazing to see what people can do when they stand on the shoulders of one another united, not divided. We’d love for this to inspire future personal projects of this nature.”

What is interesting is that the exhibition, which expresses a strongly pro-Remain sentiment, is being shown in an area that voted unambiguously in favour of Leave – the split in Barnsley was 68.3 percent to 31.7. This is not a deliberately provocative move, neither is it an attempt to change people’s minds in any way, rather the intention is to make a connection.

“The important point of the exhibition is that you engage with it,” says Oldham.

“One of the most saddening parts of Brexit, for me, whichever way you voted, is this overwhelming feeling of disconnect. As a society we seem to be in a process of shut down and that really worries me. The exhibition is not meant to incite a disdain in the viewer one way or another.

“Its aim is a quieter, humorous, alternative take on the debate. And if nothing else, it doesn’t answer you back.”

ME & EU: Postcards from Post-EU Britain is at Barnsley Civic until April 27.