As a new exhibition opens in the Riverfront Theatre and Arts Centre exploring the coastline of Port Talbot as part of the Celf Coast Cymru project, Emma Schofield went along to talk to Neath-based artist Neale Howells.
It’s Thursday afternoon and I’ve been in the basement of the Riverfront Theatre and Arts Centre in Newport, watching Neale Howells and his team assemble a new exhibition, ahead of its official opening in a few days’ time. It’s a space I like, it’s quiet and free from distraction, but it’s also one of those eerie, rare places where there is no phone signal. For a short while there is just the artwork, which is being carried in and unpacked, moved around to find the best space; it’s fascinating to see it coming together. I first spoke to Howells a few days ago, over the phone. In all honesty, it wasn’t the most successful interview I’ve ever attempted to do. There was a lot going on in the news that day and we got distracted talking about everything that was happening in the world and by Howells’ stories, which took us in a number of quite interesting directions. When I looked at the notepad on my desk at the end of the call, I’d only scribbled two things – listen to Talking Heads, and he cashed in his pants to pay poll tax; both are probably stories for another time and place.
In the basement, distraction isn’t really possible. The artwork being assembled instantly grabs my attention and there is a growing sense of energy as the exhibition starts to take shape, along with a palpable relief that each item of work has made it here in one piece. Apparently, it was touch and go as to whether some of the larger works would even fit in the van to make the journey from Howell’s Port Talbot studio. Yet here it is, in what Howells describes to me as “an experimental space” in the Riverfront, where the dark surroundings seem to make the chaotic colours in the paintings jump out as you walk towards them. “The light’s subterranean,” Howells tells me, “it’s brilliant for this kind of thing, it looks stunning with the dark around it”. He’s not wrong, it’s difficult to know where to start looking at the images and then, once you’ve spent some time looking at them, hard to know where to stop. There’s so much going on in each image. When we make our way back up the stairs to get a coffee a short while later, my phone starts going crazy. Whatsapp groups and news alerts clamour to tell me that Liz Truss has resigned as Prime Minister in a speech which lasted just one minute and thirty seconds, perhaps an appropriate reflection of her stint as the shortest serving peace-time Prime Minister in the UK’s history.
While we wait for our coffees, I show the headline on my phone to Neale and he shakes his head in disbelief, “surely now we’ve got to have a general election” he suggests as we find a table near the window, “this can’t go on”. Many would agree and it all feels like quite an appropriate backdrop for talking about his new exhibition. The exhibition is entitled ‘A Divided Nation’ and offers an exploration of the industrial legacy as well as the political heritage of Neath Port Talbot. I ask Howells’ about the inspiration for the idea of division and he tells me that it originated during the Covid-19 pandemic. “It’s built up over time. During lockdown I was making collages, photographing the collages and then converting them. I realised I need to make my own negatives and it was really sunny at the time, perfect weather for doing that, so I started experimenting with those, learned how to do that using the printer and then began to combine the collages with images of things that were happening at the time, taken from the TV with a digital camera. Eventually that led to these pieces.” The divided element is more complex; for Howells, that seems to have arisen organically from the images as they started to build together. “It was a way of documenting what I was doing, the three large pieces you see stuck on to board as you walk into the exhibition, looking almost like a house, contain photos and if you look closely you’ll see elements which fit with that theme. So you’ll see Thatcher in there and that adds to building that feeling.”
In amongst all of these layers, the exhibition has another dimension as well. For the Celf Coast Cymru project, Howells was paired with poet Robert Minhinnick who has written a poem inspired by the Welsh coastline, with lines from Minhinnick’s poetry included in the artwork. I’m struck by the pairing and the fact that it isn’t one I would automatically have made and yet clearly, it’s worked. I ask Howells how it came about and he frowns for a moment. “I’m not actually sure, to be honest with you. That’s a good question. I assume probably because of the geography of the whole thing. Robert’s from Neath originally as well and he lives in Porthcawl now, so it just made sense for us to work together on the stretch of coast in the Port Talbot area I suppose. Robert’s great, it worked really well.”
That’s something of an understatement; the combined effect of the finished pieces is really quite remarkable. Howells’ signature style is visible immediately in the bright colours, dripping paint and collage effect of the pieces. They’re not images which sit quietly on the wall waiting for you to look at them. Instead, they shout for your attention, demanding focus through the graffiti-style words and complexity of the layered images. It’s clear that, for Howells, material is everywhere. “I’m on Instagram a lot” he tells me. “When I seem something I think I can use, I screenshot it and then I begin that process of layering and it’s just so much fun to do and you don’t always know what you’re going to get at the end of it.”
That sense of fun is often at the heart of Howells’ work. I ask about the videos which he has recorded as part of the project, performance art featuring him wearing a box on his head and clearly enjoying the experience of being outside and creating something completely different in that coastal space. “It’s all a bit of fun. There’s no point taking things too seriously all of the time” Howells tells me, when I ask about this. “There’s nothing better than putting a box on your head and having a laugh on a beach and I’m at that age where I just don’t care anymore. It was so much fun to do and we got some great stuff to put out there.”
“Originally we were going to show a DVD downstairs as part of the exhibition, but I don’t think that’s even going to happen now as no one’s really got a DVD player and that’s fine. I’m not really sure that it needs it anyway. The performance part was an extra thing that we could put out there; there are images of it in the work downstairs in any case, they’re part of the collage as a photograph of what I’ve done. There are digital screens outside, so hopefully they’ll show some of it on those as well, but I don’t think the exhibition actually needs something else as well.”
Before I let Howells get back to assembling the exhibition, I have to ask about Know Your Enemy and the artwork he designed for the Manic Street Preachers when the album was first released back in 2001. The release brought Howells’ art to a whole new audience, launching his paintings on to a new platform. With the album re-released this summer, the album cover is again back in focus and I can’t help wondering how Howells feels about this, some twenty years after it was first featured. The response I get is one of enthusiasm, “I love it! The thing is, when I was in school it was one of the things I wanted to do, I thought that’d be a great job designing covers for albums, but obviously got told by a teacher not to be stupid and that couldn’t possibly be a career. So when this happened it was like my dream job. They’ve changed it again this time though; they’ve taken the big letters off the front and changed the colour. It’s good, like seeing it revived.”
As we finish our coffee Howells’ phone rings; he’s needed back down in the basement to continue pulling the exhibition together. We walk towards the foyer of the Riverfront and suddenly spot an advert for the exhibition on the rolling promotional screens near the entrance. The screen briefly shows a clip of Howells with his box on his head, with details promoting the exhibition, and his face breaks into a wide grin, “look at that, we don’t need the screens downstairs after all!”. His phone is out within seconds, ready to take a photo, and we stand for a few minutes waiting for the carousel of images to come back around and for the cardboard box to appear again. Howells is excited, that sense of pride is back again and, having seen the show coming together, I think it’s fair to say that pride is justified.
A Divided Nation is on show at The Riverfront Theatre and Arts Centre until 9th November. Details can be found here.
The Celf Coast Cymru project features 10 pop-up exhibitions, which will appear along the Wales Coast Path— in celebration of the Path’s 10th anniversary.