OCA Magazine: Tell us about yourself and your activity / work

Natalie Bays: I am a cultural project manager based in the outskirts of East London and I have thirteen years of experience working in participatory and community arts. During my degree study at Chelsea College of Art & Design in London I founded an arts organisation with my colleague Joe called ‘The NO Collective’ – which celebrates its tenth birthday this June!  We develop creative programmes and festivals in the UK and abroad – including having conducted a 3 year programme in association with CSSN Azerbaijan. I have a niche experience in developing cultural business’s and events in town centres – having successfully regenerated an East London shopping centre through cultural activity, developing a business hub in a dilapidated night-club, and opening an artists studio within an ‘art-deco’ parade of shops. I am now working in a shopping centre in Romford with a community-centric ethos where we are turning the experience of your weekly shop on it’s head. This is now an award winning community hub, which plays home to two international film festivals, an architecture week, a couple of food festivals, and a winter lights festival to name a few!

OCA: What is “Eurasianism” for you?

NB: To be honest, I find the 1920’s term for ‘Eurasianism’ paradoxical, it implies that individual Russian and post-soviet cultures and societies are ‘unique; as a singular body’, which in turn would make the individual communities stereotypical of each other. I would agree that Russian and post soviet regions and countries do not ‘fit’ into these stereotypes of European or Asian cultures and societies specifically, however from the same perspective I do not believe that the term completely justifies the richness of the individual communities that are present in these regions; the basic concept being that you cannot generalise ‘a people’ as a geographic concept.

On the other hand I do feel that in our society now “Eurasianism” has rejected these 20th Century confines and has now become a term that is about discovery. As a Brit, I have studied a typically heritage syllabus throughout school, and for me, Eurasia is an area of the world that stands out for not being part of it. This exudes the enjoyment for me in discovering more about these regions and their hidden delights. So far during my own discovery and working alongside the Eurasian Creative guild I have found that in the Eurasian regions and countries there is a huge diversity of heritage, linguistics, religions and lifestyles and cultures that have been shared with its people from all over the world – especially with great influences from the great silk road, Russian and Ottoman Empires; because of this, each country has its own shared cultures, and differing sub-cultures and hyper-localisms – all very different to the ones that i know about already. The realisation of this is daunting, but so exciting.

OCA: Who are your favourite artists?

NB: I have many! They mainly they all seem to dove-tail to the theme of civic society and accessible arts. I am very much drawn to contemporary artists that consider the histories of people and create fun works that engage audiences. Ólafur Elíasson’s (Iceland) work is probably one of my most recent loves – his work is extremely enjoyable to experience – primarily using simplistic forms and light to engage his audience. I am also a big fan of Faig Ahmed’s work (Azerbaijan) which unites very modern themes with his cultural heritage – the ‘protected and intangible heritage’ of Carpet Weaving. His works do not sabotage the historic processes used to create them – but instead use it as a tool to reimagine and provoke ideas of our engagement to technology and science. I feel I should also mention one of my artistic peers who is currently researching his PHD at UCL– Robert Mead; we studied together and he is a fabulous thinker. Rob has worked with us in the past on some of our Azerbaijani projects previously and his work depicts imagery that researches and explores both organic and social behaviour and interconnectivity in some of the Eurasian and post soviet regions.

Despite my visual background, I am also a huge fan of buildings – with the late Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid being my icon of contemporary architecture. Her developments are daring and sculptural, but also innately social, if you have ever been inside a Hadid building, the spaces are not only beautiful, but also completely designed for people to be within them. The Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku for example is a visual masterpiece to look at, but also delightful to venture inside of. It’s hard not to spend a whole day there.

My last mention is Jeremy Deller, a British contemporary who I drew great inspiration from during study. His work elevates people, societies and their micro-cultures, archiving the stories and things that average people feel are important, whether it be sub-cultures of music or local rituals. Much of his work culminates in community led carnivals or re-enactments that are fun to be a part of and in turn document the importance of everyone within culture.

 OCA:Have you taken part in the events of the Eurasian Creative Guild (London)?

NB: I would say i am an active participant in the Eurasian Creative Guild, I have been a member for almost three years and attend meetings in London and book launches where possible. I have also attended art exhibitions, fashion shows and literary events curated by the guild and its members in London. I am now on the guild’s advisory board to help consult on programmes and events, so I believe I will become a participant of many more in the very near future!

OCA: What does the Eurasian Creative Guild mean to you, and how did it affect your creativity / activity?

NB:  The guild is an opportunity to expand my knowledge and learn from the experiences of others. By meeting and becoming friends with new people from a spectrum of places and cultures that I know barely anything about I can adapt my own norms and values. Professionally, working with the guild it has enhanced my event outcomes and the priorities that programme curation entails. Working with the guild members I have found that I have also become more relaxed and changeable and very aware of unexpected minority ethnicity cultures living in my community. From a personal development angle it is also great to learn from the confidence of some of the guild members too. My experience has been that Eurasian women are very strong, honest and bold in what they have achieved, and what they do. This is not something that British culture nurtures so well in women, and as a sometimes ‘shrunken violet’ I completely admire the traits. The members are also extremely kind, polite and friendly too; it was a very easy and quick transition, as a ‘cultural outsider’ to become involved in activities and invited to social gatherings outside of the guild.

OCA:  Do you have any personal project that you would like to talk about?

NB: InAzerbaijan is a project that brought me to the guild originally. A project with the NGO fund of Azerbaijan (CSSN), it has seen our members travel to Azerbaijan and write about the countries History, Politics, Culture, Society and Environment from a first hand perspective. The information gathered has been collated on a website: www.inazerbaijan.co.uk which includes teaching resources for all ages, travel advice and a huge amount of information that was not available online previously. We were also lucky enough to hold an artists residency programme so that new artworks could be made in Baku to display in the UK. This has been an amazing project to coordinate and hopefully one which will increase good feeling, partnership and awareness between the UK and Azerbaijan. I also have great hope this is something that not only can we continue adding to alongside Azerbaijan – but that we can also engage other Eurasian countries too. I would love to see an umbrella of programmes, InKazakhstan, or InUzbekistan for example – as the more we learn about these amazing places, the more we can learn and develop from each other. I know that this is definitely something that our exploratory members would be interested in.

OCA: What projects have you participated in and in which do you plan to participate?

NB:  I support the running of The Eurasian Creative Guild annual film festival in London and have participated most recently in the Eurasian Culture Week in London. It is now my aim in the coming year to participate with the activities that are outside of the UK, especially those within the Eurasian regions. I have met some amazing creatives from the Eurasian region and now I would really like to experience their homes and heritage to put greater context to their artworks, poetry and writing. The ‘Voices of Friends’ project has caught my eye specifically for it’s collective meaning. This project is collecting poetry and writing from all of the Guild’s members to create a diary almanac to capture the guild as a collective. The almanac will then be submitted to the British Library to be kept, almost as a moment of heritage of a mutually connected group of people from across the world. The ethos is great.

OCA: What would you wish for the members of the  ECG,  just starting their career?

NB:  Stay bold, pursue your creativity and commit to all of the experience that the guild has to offer. Every event brings a different Guild audience and there really is a huge array of creatives from different backgrounds and professional levels who are friendly and willing to help you in your journey. You just need to meet them. There are also lots of opportunities to promote yourself at meetings and events for free. These are great to connect with people and also for self development, reflect on your practise, who you are and where you would like to be.