Pete McKee: “I want to show there’s a huge amount of nobility in being working class”
At a time when the country’s social divisions are highly entrenched, one of Sheffield’s most recognisable artists has returned with an exhibition that aims to celebrate and explore Britain’s working class. Exposed spoke to Pete McKee about This Class Works, his first show in two years, which opens in July and will mark just over a year since the Batemoor-born artist underwent a life-changing liver transplant.
So where did the initial inspiration for This Class Works come from?
I started working towards a new exhibition as soon as I left hospital in May last year. I felt that with the current political climate, Brexit in particular, there was a need to address the battering the working classes were getting; I wanted to define what being working class meant for me. It’s a proud, noble thing to be working class and they’re unfairly being dragged through the mud, taking the blame for Brexit without taking into account how a lot of skint, desperate people were effectively sold a magic beans scenario. Who wouldn’t want to change the situation in their position?
It’s quite a pertinent issue for a city like Sheffield, which traditionally has always been proud of its working class heritage. But over the last ten years or so the media discourse surrounding the lower classes has really shifted, with regular class-bashing in the papers and ‘poverty porn’ programmes becoming hugely popular. Is there an element of fighting back against that with this exhibition?
Yes, it’s saying that there’s a huge amount of nobility in being working class, in being born into hugely difficult situations and showing how you can survive it. It takes a lot of nous and determination to just look after a family when you’ve got bugger all, so this exhibition delves into what it actually means to be working class.
As a lad growing up on a Batemoor council estate, how would you say your background shaped you?
It completely shaped me. My attitudes to social issues and people themselves were moulded by my upbringing. You’d watch the lengths people would go to make ends meet, which then naturally feeds into your own work ethic and in my case provides inspiration for work. Clearly, everything I paint is inspired in some part by my working class origins and remains very reflective of where I came from.
It’s often the sense of community which makes these areas special. Do you have any recollections of that?
There was always a lot of rallying around. My mum passed away when I was seven-years-old and all our close neighbours came around to help my dad out, they basically taught him how to cook and look after us. It meant I ended up with a few more “aunties” who I wasn’t actually related to – you know, like Auntie Eunice from down t’road and Auntie Violet from round t’back. Such communities are seriously tight-knit. I mean, when you’re pushed together in terraced housing it’s difficult to avoid each other!
It’s frightening because it’s vital that art exists in the world, and it’s just as important that kids who might struggle academically are offered another type of outlet – a creative one which they can use their soul for.
Sticking with the subject of class, the art industry is often portrayed as a domain of the upper classes. In your experience, is class snobbery still a thing in the art world or have times moved on now?
Well, I don’t have the traditional educational art background of studying at St Martin’s or somewhere like that. I think doors are opened a lot more quickly for artists coming through those systems, but for artists coming into the profession via a poly course or going at it themselves it’s far more difficult to be given opportunities. I could go down to London with my portfolio and I wouldn’t get into any decent galleries for love nor money – they just wouldn’t get it. That all said, you can be working class, go to St Martin’s and you’ll be judged on your merits, even if there is a sense of elitism to deal with. But you have to look at other factors, too, like how it helps to have the money in the first place when it comes to being able to afford living and studying in London.
I suppose it also doesn’t bode well for working class representation when you factor in the cuts leading to an erosion of the arts on national curriculums.
It’s horrific. That really is a classist issue, as you know that private schools will continue with their art programmes. You’re going to have young kids coming into secondary school and faced straightaway with your core academic subjects while the arts are relegated completely. It’s frightening because it’s vital that art exists in the world, and it’s just as important that kids who might struggle academically are offered another type of outlet – a creative one which they can use their soul for.
You’ll be working with a number of other artists on this exhibition, something of a first for you. Why did you decide to make it a collaborative project?
If there’s a certain vision that I can’t achieve by myself it makes sense to bring in sculptors, filmmakers and whoever else to help create it. I think getting other voices into the show helps to thicken it out and provide other outlooks on the subject. There’s a strong portion of myself in there but we’ve also got contributions from other artists, poets, musicians, sculptors and photographers. It means it’s going to be a very vibrant and visually exciting show.
The show will be taking place in the warehouse space at 92 Burton Road. Any particular reasons why you chose to host it there?
For starters, I’ve been there for a few events before and always thought it was crying out for a big exhibition. We’ve procured it for 16 days, which is brilliant as it gives the opportunity for more people to see it in their own time rather than having to rush down over a weekend.
And how are you, Pete? It’s coming up to a year since your surgery. Has the experience created any new personal perspectives?
I’m doing great, thank you for asking. In terms of new perspectives, I certainly don’t take things for granted now. There’s plenty of other stuff like not getting too upset when Wednesday lose anymore – which is just as well when you look at the way things have gone for us this season! But yeah, I feel better than I have done for years and it’s great to be back in the thick of things.
This Class Works will be showing at 92 Burton Road from 14-29 July. Tickets are available from petemckee.com.