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‘Slanguages’ Exhibition at The Buttery

5 November 2017 | Charlie Powell

Explore the connection between languages in the performing arts, and creativity, at the intriguing visual exhibition 'Slanguages.'

Wolfson College hosts 'Slanguages', a comparative exhibition highlighting the influence of language on three Birmingham-based artists: Rinkoo Barpaga – a Deaf comedian and film maker who has created his own urban sign language, grime musician RTKAL and Nigeria’s first Grammy Award winner, percussionist Lekan Babalola.



The exhibition is curated by Punch Records and a research project, Creative Economy, led by Professor Rajinder Dudrah of Birmingham City University. Visitors to the space, Wolfson College’s Buttery, can learn about the resonances of call-and-response in music across different cultures; Rasta concepts of the importance of percussive sound and the physical sound of words; the Urban Sign Language which Rinkoo Barpaga developed while signing for Hip Hop features on MTV, and the “double discrimination” faced by black and ethnic minority deaf people in the UK. The exhibition aims to ask three questions across its investigations:
  • What kinds of creativity are involved? 

  • How do those different kinds of creativity manifest themselves in multilingual processes? 

  • How does multilingualism stimulate creativity? 

'Slanguages', while being entirely composed of specific case studies on forms of language and individual artists, explores language in its broadest sense. By looking at Barpaga’s USL alongside the significance of the aural effects of speech and music, the exhibition suggests a web of connections between all forms of communication. These may all be considered parallel types of language, yet there are very real differences in status between them. The explanation of Word-Sound-Power on one of the boards in the exhibition ties many of the strands together:

“The Rastafari Concept of Word-Sound-Power ... is an understanding that the vibrations of both speech and music can impact the hearer and the world in either a positive or a negative manner.”

RTKAL’s description of how audiences react differently to different types of beat confirms the importance of the aural element of communication, but this is often an area of language which members of the deaf community are unable to access. One of the most powerful aspects of language-types is the power to create an insider and an outsider group, and this exhibition features artists who have all acted upon their own linguistic world, making use of the difference of languages other than Standard Spoken English. Barpaga’s development of USL allows a translation of some of the aural effects of Hip Hop into a deaf- accessible format, and has faced the same criticisms about ‘Correctness’ that urban slang does, yet his is an artistic achievement which is allowing more expressive power to deaf users of sign language. The power differential between languages is key to the work of these artists, work which often contains the potential to challenge structural privileging of dominant languages over minority community languages.

Julie Curtis and Philip Bullock, the researchers on Professor Dudrah’s project who have devised this exhibition, present their work with a satisfying visual economy of style, which is quick to inform, but raises important and lasting ideas about the power-language relationship and race in modern society.

‘Slanguages’ will run at The Buttery, Wolfson College, Oxford until Tuesday 12 December. The exhibition is open daily 9.30am-5pm, subject to College commitments. Visitors are advised to check with the Lodge Reception before coming to view. Admission is free.

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