198 Contemporary Arts and Learning , called ‘198’ by many locals, is located on Railton Road, Brixton in south London. Brixton is a district in the borough of Lambeth, London a richly multi cultural area with a population of locals and residents from across the world, most noticeably African-Caribbean immigrants. Since the 1950s the African Caribbean community have established a diverse cultural feel and a dynamic anti-establishment edge to the borough. To those who are familiar with life in London today Brixton has become a focal point of creative expression for many local, immigrant and refugee people – a space where there are more languages and dialects spoken per square mile than most other similar spaces in Britain.
198 grew out of the social unrest of the 1980’s, when racism and discrimination to be found in urban UK cities at the time was exacerbated by the introduction of SUS laws which meant that mostly young black men were indiscriminately and randomly stopped and searched openly in the street. This increased conflict and tension between the local community and police in the summer of 1981 lit a powder keg of resentment and frustration, resulting in some of the most serious street disturbances seen in Britain since the war. Four years later, in 1985, rioting in Brixton erupted again when police stormed the home of black mother Cherry Groce. Black Community leaders worked hard to bring peace to the streets while visits by the Prime Minister and the Scarman Inquiry were the beginnings of a political commitment to change. From the debris of such social unrest arose opportunities for black community leaders not only to have their voices heard, but also to implement regenerative projects to empower the local community to express themselves politically, economically and creatively. Funding provided by government to stimulate social regeneration in the community was an important catalyst for supporting Roots Community Limited, which in 1988 became 198 Gallery.
Roots Community began from a chance conversation between John ‘Noel’ Morgan and Zoë Linsley-Thomas. Zoë was a minicab driver and John manager of Vargus Social Club in Landor Road). Out of this first conversation developed a partnership that would grow over the coming years, forming the initial ideas that would take root and see the emergence of Roots Community Association at 198 Railton, Road, just a few minutes walk from the Brixton ‘frontline’ the scene of the start of 1981 uprisings. Roots Community had a dual purpose. It offered the opportunity to Caribbean Elders to play dominoes and an opportunity for both local and national Black artists to exhibit their work. But the demand to exhibit works of art far outweighed the need for dominoes and as a consequence, the venue became a showcase for the art of the local and black community. Central to the ethos of 198 Gallery was a faith in the community, which would take its exhibitions and projects from the ‘Front-line’ of Railton Road into the international visual arts arena. Over the years 198 Gallery expanded from two to three exhibition spaces, created offices and a digital media studio.
The 198 Gallery’s early curatorial policy was embodied in the project to fundraise and commission the first public sculpture by a Black artist in the UK. The First Child, by Jamaican artist Raymond Watson is a memorial to 116 children who were murdered by the Afrikaner police force in Soweto in 1976. The memorial, stands in Max Roach Park in Brixton. Encouraged by support 198 moved towards supporting artists from a wider range of backgrounds to extend the debate on race and emergent identities in the UK.
The exhibitions provided the material for a structured art education programme and 198 began to address the growing concern within the community – that of youth. Training, participation and showcasing for young people has been integral to 198 since its foundation. 198 changed its name to 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning in 2007 to reflect this commitment and the integrated nature of its artistic and participation programmes. In 2010 198 set up HustleBucks, a social enterprise, led by local young people and acquired a retail space in Brixton Village, Brixton market with the aim of creating a hub for youth enterprise in Lambeth.