Making Connections: Jade Montserrat on Art on the Underground

Natalie Bradbury

Jade Montserrat, Art on the Underground 2018

Jade Montserrat, Art on the Underground 2018

The letters emerge from a murky background, fuzzy and uncertain around the edges as if glowing faintly. Behind dense pencil marks, colours blur into one another like distant lights. Framed within a yellow outline, these words stand out from the darkness, addressing the reader with a disarming directness:

“My dear friend, I know that you, and you alone, possess peace.”

The intimacy of this greeting is at odds with the place where it is encountered: on the cover of the London Night Tube Map. Turn to the back and, alongside a key to the map, is a somewhat cryptic instruction about how to respond: “Hand this piece to one Jacob Aston West (b. approx. 1941-3, Montserrat).”

The text work forms one element of a three-part commission by Jade Montserrat for Art on the Underground – an annual programme established in 2000 which invites contemporary artists to create temporary and often topical interventions into the London Underground network, where they are encountered at stations, on billboards and on pocket maps. Montserrat’s commission is part a year-long programme focused on female artists which marks the centenary of women’s (partial) suffrage. Her night tube map was launched alongside a pocket Tube map cover by the pioneering collage artist Linder Sterling. 

Jade Montserrat, Art on the Underground 2018

Jade Montserrat, Art on the Underground 2018

Montserrat is known for her drawings, paintings and performances, which bring together art and activism. Her recent exhibitions have taken the form of huge drawings at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and the Bluecoat in Liverpool (both 2018). Written directly onto the walls in charcoal in her naively awkward hand, observations around themes such as language, ownership, empowerment and transformation read like fragmented poetry or modern-day aphorisms. She is currently the Stuart Hall Foundation PhD candidate at the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire, where she is researching race and representation in northern Britain. Her work draws on sources as disparate as critical theory texts and graffitied slogans glimpsed from the train window. 

Jacob Aston West is the name of Montserrat’s father, and her text-based drawing for the London Night Tube Map acts as both an image and a ‘performance score’ in which those who pick the map up are invited to participate. Maybe we’ve never met Jacob, but nor has she. She knows little about him, beyond the fact that he was in Pentonville Prison at the time of her birth. Yet, perhaps one of the six million Londoners who use the tube every day might. It’s a fantasy, she admits – “Why would anyone care?” – but Art on the Underground “presented the perfect opportunity to try and find him.”

We’re discussing the commission in Montserrat’s studio in Scarborough, in a light-filled house overlooking the North Sea. It couldn’t be further from the grime of the capital. Despite being born in London, and living and studying there in the past, Montserrat has been based in North Yorkshire for most of her life. She says: “I’ve spent decades being told I should live in London, but I don’t believe in London-centricity.” From here, “I can go to London and talk with confidence about the things I’ve been observing throughout my life: the divide between the north and the south, urban and rural, visibility for people of colour.”

Montserrat is active in the local arts scene, but she’s aware of the disconnect between the Tube Map, which represents mobility and connectivity, and Scarborough, where there is comparatively little on offer culturally. “Scarborough is at the end of the line,” she points out. “It’s hard to get out of a town like this where the rail fare is quite prohibitive.”

Although there’s a sense of her not quite fitting into Scarborough, something keeps drawing her back. Montserrat describes having a “really strong attachment to landscape,” in particular the North Yorkshire moors where she grew up. “There was no one for miles around,” she explains. “I took sanctuary in the rural landscape which I shared with no one else.”

An important influence on Montserrat, which she remembers from her schooldays, was a series of wartime drawings of the London Underground by Henry Moore, another artist who spent his formative years in Yorkshire. Moore’s drawings depict a wearied, anonymous mass of Londoners, huddled together in Tube stations to shelter from the Blitz. In stark graphite, he captured the poverty and privations of the wartime experience – and the inadequacy of the government’s provisions to protect citizens from the bombing.

When Montserrat thinks of London and the Tube today, what comes to mind is “smoke and coal and how dirty these places are.” Underpinning her recent work is the idea of ‘contagion’ and she imagined that visitors to her exhibitions would leave with traces of dust from the charcoal, as well as the “contaminating effect of an idea.” When she was invited to take part in Art on the Underground 2018, therefore, she knew she “was interested in disseminating an idea and capitalising on the opportunity for a huge distribution.”

Jade Montserrat, Art on the Underground 2018

Jade Montserrat, Art on the Underground 2018

“There were particular ideas, and certain words, names and events, that I really needed to make visible,” she explains. One of these was the Grenfell Tower Fire in June 2017. Montserrat finds herself unable to “divorce being in London with knowing Grenfell happened.” This tragedy, which took place in the wake of institutional indifference to concerns raised by social housing residents, is acknowledged in a poster entitled “My anger became my motivation”: Baroness Lawrence on Grenfell (2018). Installed across the Tube’s network of 270 stations, it celebrates a “strong woman leader” (Montserrat) who was outspoken following the disaster. 

All three of Montserrat’s works for Art on the Underground ask us to confront uncomfortable truths and open our eyes to the stories of those citizens who remain invisible. As part of her research for the commission, Montserrat spent time in Glasgow, where she found the city’s Women’s Library particularly inspirational. Among the material she looked at were archival documents and annotated photographs relating to the black women’s movement and the Camden Lesbian Centre. 

Her third work for the commission – titled In Memory of Sarah Reed (2018) – is a limited edition risograph print bearing the message ‘Freedom will blossom from the skies of prisms prisons’. Reed was a young black woman with mental health problems who died in Holloway Prison in 2016 after struggling to access treatment and medication in jail. Montserrat was struck by the resemblance between herself and a photograph of Reed when she was a child, and explains how this brought home the reality that “any one of us could find ourselves in a position where we’re misunderstood, our mental health is weaponised against us and we end up dead.” Through the piece, Montserrat “wanted to draw attention to the fact that she was failed by the same system as Grenfell.”

The Art on the Underground commissions are not launched with the wine, speeches and networking of a conventional exhibition. Instead, Montserrat feels, they are allowed to be a “slow burner,” and “become a part of the Tube network with a continuing legacy.” She hopes that the legacy of her contribution will be a “call to action,” prompting the question: “How do we come together through these injustices and where do we go from there?”

Beneath the layers of pencil in these works are the colours of the rainbow, hinting at optimism and renewal. For Montserrat, the rainbow is linked with peace – something she believes we all have a shared responsibility towards. She enjoys the play on words between ‘peace’ and the materiality of the piece of paper, which she asks us to pick up and carry with us as a reminder to act on it.

Jade Montserrat’s work is on the winter edition of the London Night Tube Map, until May 2019