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Where have all these people gone?: Reflections from Saffron Mustafa

NAC member Saffron Mustafa reflects on Where have all these people gone?, which took place at SDS on Tuesday 14 May 2024 as part of Artist Archive.

I don’t often hear artists or creatives talk openly about money.

I think this is the second time in public that I have seen an artist lay out their finances like this – it feels kind of cheeky and a bit revolutionary. Sometimes I have conversations with friends that are like this, but often people aren’t up for this type of disclosure or discussion.

As I move towards my 30’s it seems that more and more people around me are miraculously buying first homes in London and no one is talking about how they did this or the impact of it on the city. I think it’s rare for people who are buying homes to talk openly about money. Often because there’s some kind of inheritance or family support that people don’t feel comfortable airing for whatever reasons.

I think this is the second time in public that I have seen an artist lay out their finances like this – it feels kind of cheeky and a bit revolutionary.

So, it was refreshing to hear Tali speak frankly about the actual numbers she was dealing with when trying to buy her first home. She is open about her positionality, being a single woman, an artist, someone who undoubtedly wears the  “working class badge of honour” but would also describe herself as middle class because of her income and where she is in her career. She is now a homeowner but was forced to find this home outside of London, due to unattainable house prices.

Tali grew up in London and lived in a council flat as a child. She could have stayed but home ownership was a priority for her and she had to make choices. Tali talks about the precarity of living in property guardianships (when a company rents out a property to people to take care of it and prevent the building from being squatted and reserves the right to ask the tenants to move at short notice) and how house shares didn’t work for her.

I have been renting in London for ten years and can see that other renters increasingly make sacrifices concerning how much personal space they have, their postcode etc. to be able to live in London. And it’s very personal and pushes people to their limits – how many hours are you willing to live from your work? How much mould can you handle? How much poor treatment will you take from your landlord? How many people are you willing to share a bathroom with? Are you willing to move far away from your existing community? Does two months notice sound ok?

Tali speaks about identity, class and money with clarity and room for things to be complex. It is complicated. She says she is contributing to the gentrification of Margate and Nabil reminds us of the etymology of the word gentrification. “Maybe you’re contributing to something but I don’t know if it’s gentrification”.  At the same time, Tali is an artist and will have some kind of impact on shaping the landscape of Margate. She has also been priced out of home ownership in London, pushing her, a working-class Londoner among other things, out of the city, gentrification ™. I appreciate that we can be open about the murkiness of things. We hear some words a lot and accept loose meanings without questioning them but not so much in this conversation. 

I appreciate that we can be open about the murkiness of things. We hear some words a lot and accept loose meanings without questioning them but not so much in this conversation.

What we are talking about here is honesty and complexity. Being open about what you do, where you come from, the roles and archetypes that you occupy. So I want to do the same. I am interested in this conversation between Tali and Nabil because I love movement and dancing and I am a bit of a housing and housing justice nerd in that I read e-books about these topics in my spare time. The built environment and how we create the places that we live in is very interesting to me. I am not from London, I’ve been here for only 10 years. I have never lived in social housing. I studied art which is why I am particularly interested in the role that students and artists play in shaping places. After studying art I studied city planning, becoming the first person in my family to get a masters degree. I have both working-class and middle-class relatives. I’m White and 28 years old.  My parents have never earned a lot of money but for most of my childhood, we had the Guardian or Observer newspaper on the weekend. My family cannot sustain me with their capital. I don’t have any savings.

Tali and Nabil first in conversation at Material Archive Launch: Mum. Edit. More. Photo: Emily Cooper, MovesMag

Nabil is interested in how concepts and power have developed over time and the power of them. It seems that in these histories he finds clues about how to reclaim or redistribute power – for example, through buying the block, power is shifted into the hands of the residents living there. 

Nabil says that he works in the built environment, “for a gentrifier”, but he’s also trying to bring about change. He describes the planning system in 2 minutes for an audience member who asks about what’s in it, beyond profit, for developers to keep providing such negligible amounts of social housing. He talks about section 106 and how many different types of ‘affordable housing’ there are and the different ways that they are ineffective and don’t actually mean ‘affordable’. He is good at unpacking the etymology and use of words and demonstrating how some words are used in hollow ways. He says that the language used by built environment professionals is intentionally difficult. Nabil is interested in how concepts and power have developed over time and the power of them. It seems that in these histories he finds clues about how to reclaim or redistribute power – for example, through buying the block, power is shifted into the hands of the residents living there.

At the end, an audience member talks about how the Windrush generation found homes, and what they did to find these homes in an inhospitable city.  They had been promised jobs and homes when they arrived from the Caribean to England, but “doors were closed – ‘no Blacks, no dogs, no Irish’”. She described how many of the people who arrived in London with the Windrush became homeless and were forced to sleep in parks and on the underground. They were also prevented from loaning money from banks so there were many barriers to home ownership. The audience member talked about how the Windrush community put their heads together to come up with a community savings scheme called Pardner Hand, Pardener or Pardna. Nabil talks about how he is aware that Privatise the Mandem is a piece of work that builds on histories of actions towards housing justice and talks about how he and his friends inherited survival tools from their parents and grandparents. 

There is more to say about histories of collective enfranchisement and fighting for housing justice in London, especially amongst marginalised groups. There is more to say about activism in public spaces, in housing, in occupations, in collective ownership and fighting for renters’ rights and against gentrification and displacement. I haven’t mentioned that this talk is taking place in Elephant and Castle where all of these themes have particular relevance through the places past and present. I would like to explore more about the role of artists and art spaces in both taking part in gentrification and being somewhat exploited by the process too. I would like to talk about issues regarding class, the arts and creativity too. Who gets access to the arts? Who do we allow to be creative? How much is space worth?

Both Tali and Nabil occupy complex spaces in relation to this conversation – Nabil works for a company he describes as a gentrifier but works to share knowledge and ideas with communities that can benefit from them, and prompts people to ask questions about the status quo. Tali has been priced out of her hometown London and figuring out what it means to exist as herself in her many roles and identities in a new place. They are both vulnerable about this in this conversation. 

Telling the truth is revolutionary. Being frank can be fruitful. After this conversation, I have a lot of thoughts about where we could all be more honest. For example about our heritages, our lineages and what resources we have access to. We all have resources. There are different types of capital, and Nabil cites the theorist Pierre Bourdieu whose theory outlines three forms: economic, social, and cultural. Let’s look unflinchingly at what resources we have and use them wisely and to radical ends, to create the world we want to live in, to create collective enfranchisement. What power do we as individuals have? What power do we have as collectives? What knowledges have we inherited and how can we think about what we might want to disregard or take forward from those knowledges? How can we create conditions for the people who don’t have the space to – to dream, imagine and create? How can we empower people with the information to take action towards the change they want to see?

What power do we as individuals have? What power do we have as collectives? What knowledges have we inherited and how can we think about what we might want to disregard or take forward from those knowledges? How can we create conditions for the people who don’t have the space to – to dream, imagine and create? How can we empower people with the information to take action towards the change they want to see?

Some Resources

If you are interested in learning more about housing justice, something I am reading at the moment and enjoying is: Against Landlords: How to Solve the Housing Crisis by Nick Bano. Also check out Big Capital: Who is London for? from Anna Minton.

If you are interested in getting involved with mobilising for safer, sustainable and just rented housing conditions, consider joining your local London Renters Union or looking into housing co-operatives in your area.


Written by Saffron Mustafa. Commissioned by Siobhan Davies Studios.
Find Saffron on Instagram @sssssssaaaaaaaafffffff, or see her website at saf.mmm.page.