People Make Peckham: Rachael Harlow – South London Gallery

Rachael Harlow is Assistant Curator at The South London Gallery. Her role is to support the exhibitions that the gallery delivers, as well as to take a lead with the work they do with public commissioning. Some of the projects that Rachael has delivered alongside The SLG are truly amazing and we will be going into more detail on a couple of these later. With anyone who works in a job like this that’s so deeply connected to it’s community, it’s interesting to discover why someone is so personally driven to do that job, and where the connection came from.
Rachael has been living in South East London for the past nine years ever since starting her BA at Goldsmiths studying Fine Art and History of Art. There is a sense of pride in community around Peckham and Camberwell, and working with the residents of Sceaux Gardens Estate, which is directly behind The SLG, means you get to walk around Peckham and see people that you know, it’s very village-like in this way. The work that Rachael does directly affects the area she lives in. Everyone at The SLG cares strongly about the community and they fully understand that their situation is unique in that they ‘work with internationally renowned artists and are also surrounded by housing’. They are also unique in that they are situated on the border of Camberwell and Peckham, two very different areas but that also share lot’s of commonalities. Rachael explains the importance of a dialogue between the gallery and their neighbours is essential; ‘you can’t exist as an organisation like us without having a team of people that’s wider than your staff’.

The project that we were really excited to talk to Rachael about was the creation of the gallery’s Orozco Garden last October. Rachael explains they ‘had this space at the back of the gallery which was kind of just concrete paving slabs’, which was useful because it gave the staff somewhere to sit outside as well as space for the occasional school group to use, but didn’t offer much more than that. ‘It was very utilitarian and uninspiring’. The re-imagining of this outside space had been an ambition of the gallery’s director, Margot Heller, for many years, different projects had to take priority, but finally the time was right and they decided to jump on it. ‘Space is such a premium in London and outdoor space particularly for public use is something that’s really important for people but is under provided particularly in the locality. It’s a really densely populated borough, so to have a piece of space that we didn’t have open to the public didn’t feel quite right.’

They invited the artist Gabriel Orozco to design the garden which could have been seen as a strange choice as he hadn’t previously worked with gardens, however he often deals with natural and urban spaces and with people and how they use spaces, so to the gallery it seemed a great fit. They also felt that the fact this wasn’t Gabriel’s traditional practice acted as an interesting challenge. They also enlisted the help of 6a architects on the design of the garden, and the expertise of Kew Gardens to help with the planting scheme. One of the main objectives of the garden was to fully open up access to the gallery from its rear entrance. The garden backs onto Sceaux Gardens Estate which houses lots of people who the gallery wanted to encourage to use the space. Unlike a lot of privately owned spaces in London this one is intended for use by people visiting the gallery as well as those who just want to sit in an outside space. People are encouraged to come and enjoy the garden without feeling the pressure of going inside, and this is partly where opening up the back entrance comes in. A few years ago artist Tue Greenfort opened up a hole in the back fence for residents to be able to access the gallery more directly, this is in reference to the fact that the gallery’s original entrance when opened in 1891 was traditionally through the back. The reopening of the back entrance with the Orozco Garden meant that parents felt happy to let their kids safely wander down and enter the gallery from the residential area around the back.

It’s now turning into summer and residents and gallery staff are all enjoying seeing the garden in it’s prime. Having been completed in October 2016 it’s now at the point where it can be used fully, and without shivering in big coats. Stepping into the garden, no matter which entrance you use, feels like you’re stepping into a secret forgotten garden, which was exactly the idea behind it. It’s peaceful and serene and through its careful design has managed to feel like an alien environment that’s also strangely recognisable. The materials are the recognisable part, York Stone, which is everywhere around London including the front face of the gallery, and bricks that were saved from the back wall of the gallery when it was transformed into large glass doors. Both of these materials make up the structure of the garden which references the artist’s Mexican background in it’s pattern and his time in Tokyo in some of its planting. It feels like an amalgamation of worlds both familiar and imagined. The planting is cleverly made up of the familiar; a large magnolia tree in the centre of the garden, and the unfamiliar; succulents and dwarf maple trees, these are all punctuated by rosemary, sage and thyme which the scent comes off as the heat comes out. These subtly blend into the garden without looking out of place. There are little ways in which the newness of the garden is hidden through clever design, stacking bricks to look like they’re crumbling, as well as hand-laying the paving without cement, apart from at the edges, to make way for plants to easily grow through the cracks.
Rachael and the projects she works on with the South London Gallery are so inspiring and there is so much more we could talk about in this one blog post. The work they do show us what can be achieved when people put the time in to look after their community.

Find out more about Orozco garden here.