Street Level Legacy

Stephen Oryszczuk - Thursday 16th 2012f August 2012

Jewellery manufacturer Ari Norman chose the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre to create a series of powerful murals on the side of his London offices. Stephen Oryszczuk went along to ask why.

Throughout London 2012, we've heard a lot about an 'Olympic legacy' and of 'inspiring a generation', which sounds dangerously like loose talk and empty promises. Now that the races have been run and the tourists have returned, attention has switched to how the London Olympiad will achieve its stated aim.

On a macro level, this means funding and investment, and in this area commitments have already been made. On a micro level, there are numerous examples of how the Games have inspired people to do things they might not otherwise have done. One such example is the new Olympic-themed urban art that can now be seen on the facade of Ari Norman's office building facing Stonebridge Park station, north-west London.

For the past few weeks, a series of images depicting three Olympiads has been captivating onlookers, bystanders and passers-by.

The first image is of Berlin in 1936, when Jesse Owens won four gold medals, disproving Hitler's ideas about white supremacy. The second is of Mexico City in 1968, when two black athletes stood on the podium and gave the black power salute, thereby creating one of the most iconic images of the civil rights struggle. A final image shows the Munich Olympiad of 1972, where 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and murdered.

The images, which took two months to complete, were painted by artist Abe Sesay - a friend of Ari's son. They are Abe's first foray into urban art, and Ari's debut in terms of commissioning art.

Ari's business manufactures silver jewellery. His Argenta House offices, which now host Sesay's creations, have never been so interesting. Indeed, they're one of north London's most striking examples of street art, and, for Ari, their effect is powerful.

"We chose to commemorate three Olympiads at which racial strife was highlighted. The original spirit of the Olympics is apolitical, with fair competition between all races and nations, irrespective of religion, race and colour. So it's urban art as a statement, really."

Sitting at his desk in a wood-panelled room, Ari considers his first foray into the world of urban art, and says he feels good for having done it. "I would describe it as liberating, because for once I concentrated on a project that had nothing to do with trying to create money or business."

Both artist and commissioner worked on the ideas together, and while the final product was a result of artistic evolution, Ari explains that the three particular Olympiads were natural choices.

"Berlin 1936 shows what the Olympics should not be about - racism, politics etc. Mexico 1968 shows a symbol that resonates through the decades. And then there is the horror of 1972. I felt very strongly that this is something that should be shown."

For this 65-year-old son of a Jewish refugee, who suffered antisemitism at school and who lost family members in the Holocaust, there is a deep personal connection to the themes embodied by the images.

"I learnt the hard way that you have to stand up and be counted, and not be scared to show that you're Jewish, and be ready to fight for your independence," Ari said.

He had wanted for 15 or 20 years to commemorate the 1972 murders. But he said: "I must admit, even as the first strokes of paint went up on the Munich scene, with the Israeli flag and the Magen David, all sorts of fears came inside me. I was proclaiming that we were linked to Judaism, and I honestly believed that there would be some kind of reaction. But I'm pleased to say there hasn't been."

After the interview, we wander outside and find a young man at the bus stop studying the 1968 image intently.

Ari walks over and asks him whether he likes it. At first he looks embarrassed, as if he's been caught doing something he shouldn't have, but they strike up a conversation and the young man listens as Ari tells him about the event and what it meant. The man then asks about the other images, and Ari continues, explaining what happened and why it was important.

Evidently, it's a history lesson that the youngster doesn't mind learning: it's the Olympics, which are current, and it's street art, which is cool. These days, it seems, this is what legacy looks like and what legacy does.

Perhaps it wasn't just loose talk after all.