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Corbin Shaw Flips the Narratives of Traditional Britain

Challenging the stigmas arround men's mental health, Corbin Shaw has connected with a generation through his use of tabloid-inspired slogans and football insignia. We linked up with the artist to discuss his upbringing, influences, and what he hopes to achieve through his work.

Originally from Sheffield but now residing in Bethnal Green, East London, Corbin moved down south to study fine art at Central Saint Martins. Growing up in a town affected heavily by Thatcher-era cuts towards industries such as mining, the easy route would have been to conform with the disheartened around him. Boxing gyms, football stadiums, and pubs can be the perfect place for men to blow off steam, relax, and connect over a cold one – or seven – but they can also become breeding grounds for conflict, hate, and toxicity. Corbin has lived these experiences and acknowledges the good as well as the bad. His work – a folk-inflected depiction of British culture portrayed through modern tapestries – looks to evoke a reaction from the viewer but, perhaps more importantly, pushes them to question societal norms encompassing masculinity, inclusivity, and the government. “We can’t buy a house, can we? So why not invest in some art” – rightly so, Corbin.

Hi, Corbin! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. For those who aren’t familiar, could you tell us a bit about what you do?

I’m an artist living and working in London. I’m originally from Sheffield, South Yorkshire. My practice investigates English culture and uses football as a vehicle to talk about masculinity. 

I’m interested in how men look at other men and express themselves in the way they dress, act, and speak.

What does a typical day in the life of Corbin Shaw look like?

Usually, I’d run in the morning, maybe ramble through a few ideas on voice notes.

I’m probably listening to something proper thumping, been banging out that track from Bend It Like Beckham in the club, you know, Mel C – ‘I Turn to You’. Then I head to my studio in Bethnal Green. Maybe go caf’, Pellicci’s or something, not always. An athlete has to watch his figure, you get me. Scrambled eggs on toast, beans, bacon, and brown sauce, with a cup of tea. Yorkshire tea, strong with two sugars, obviously. Sit an’ look at me notes from me run, decipher what’s worth any weight in gold. Get in the studio, plonk myself on the sewing machine, get grafting or get on my laptop and start plotting new works. I get a lot of inspo from podcasts, radio, and books. I know it’s bad, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Talk Sport at the moment. It’s so wacky and surreal, but I find there’s these nuggets of gold in what listeners ring in and say about their club. Nothing in life should be viewed as valueless. 

Toxic masculinity is a running thread throughout your work. What initially drew you to this theme, and what do you hope to achieve by shedding light on it?

I grew up in what you could call very ‘masculine’ environments where my ‘role models’ would enforce these rules of masculinity that I never really felt like I fit in.

Going to football and boxing with my Dad, I would have been at the gym or in the pubs. As I got older, I became more aware of what it was that was expected of me as a young man in those environments, for example, the invisible laws of masculinity that our peers’ police. In my family, I come from a long line of blokes who worked labour jobs: welders, bricklayers, and miners, who preached how to graft and how to get through it. I always felt like I was falling short of the expectations as a young man and as a northerner. The legacy of the men that came before you is a heavy burden for a young man who didn’t want to go down the same route. There were constant reminders of the past in my hometown, reminders of the defunct industries that once employed generations of men still stand today. There are all these little memorials, like the wheel that used to lower the minors into the pits. You’ve constantly got reminders of where you are an’ who came before you. I was lucky cos me mum and dad encouraged me to go and do what I want. They really installed a lot of good values and work ethic into myself and my three sisters without forcing me to follow any footsteps. As long as I was going to work hard, that was fine.

When I was 18, I moved to London to study fine art at CSM. I was only able to truly understand those environments that I grew up in once I’d moved away from them. A lot of my work hopes to understand those spaces and why men act the way they do, what informs that behaviour. I’m often trying to isolate scenarios. If I remove them and deflate them, can we understand them better? Making the art on masculinity was therapy for myself, really, a way to tell myself that masculinity can be fluid and open. I’m slowly concluding within myself that this box of ‘default man’ is a myth and totally unachievable.

You’re only able to make sense of your usual when you’re displaced, and that usual becomes unusual. Through my artwork, me and my dad have been able to understand each other better, through comparing how our masculinity is performed.

A lot of my work is based around the ideals of my hometown. I aim to shift the way The North is often misinterpreted by London-centric media and share her culture in a way that is relatable to others.

Almost acting as modern tapestries, your work offers an interesting and unique way of delivering a message. What inspired you to take this approach?

When I was studying at CSM, I got homesick, so I started making work about my family, home, and thinking, to feel closer to that space. I started focusing on where my identity was formed. For me, this was home and at the football. I started going to football again with my dad. Strange, because I'd kind of rejected football in my later teens, because it had caused me so much heartbreak and alienation. I’d not really been for years, but now I was looking at everything so differently. With this newfound nostalgia for that space, I started going back and photographing the lads and flags on the terraces at Bramall Lane, Sheffield United’s ground. I became obsessed with what was written on the flags. The puns, the songs, the slurs. Football fans are bloody smart, they don’t really get the credit they deserve. I think football flags are a form of folk art to some extent. Football chants are one of the last remaining oral traditions and folk songs we have in this country.

I like that clash between football (stereotypically masculine) and then clashing that with textiles (stereotypically feminine). Big bold text, delicately sewn. I like them sorts of things that cancel each other out. I like making things smaller, flaccid, deflating, taking the sting out of them. I once made a series of trophy’s about losing boxing and football matches. Which were like limp boxing gloves and deflated balls. A lot of my sculpture is quite phallic haha, I guess a lot of male expression is phallic. But yeah, I like pathetic objects that describe a feeling. 

Your work has been presented alongside Martin Parr’s as a look into football fandom. How do you think the culture has changed since the photographer started documenting, and what themes do you think still hold true – for better or worse – today?

Football is completely different now. How it’s watched, an' who’s watching it. What’s acceptable to say and sing on the terraces. Especially in London, clubs have made a conscious effort to market themselves to people who maybe once felt like they weren’t welcome, which is great.

Sadly, like a lot of things, as one side gets better, the other gets worse. There is still that minority of fans that give it a bad name. I'd like to think that the overall feeling is that they’re the ones who aren’t welcome at the match anymore. Football can be an incredible vehicle to change the world. Football brings us together and divides us, you can’t dispute how powerful it is.

You’ve sported a few iterations of the modern mullet over the past year or so, which, I believe, we have your mum to thank for. How did her working as a barber influence your creativity growing up?

This is such a sick question, big up my mum. I never get to speak about her, but she means the world to me. Brought me and my three sisters up whilst still learning how to barber at college. She’s cut hair since she was 16, I think. Best barber in Sheffield. Shoutout Razors Barbers in Sheffield! I’ve had all the iterations of Beckham's hairstyle thanks to my mum. My favourite was the blonde mohawk with wet-look gel, matched perfectly with a pair of Adidas Predators. But yeah, my mum is the reason why I am creative. I was proper hyperactive when I was little, so she would sit me down and make me draw. She would also tell me that barbering is like sculpting. My dad also sends me photos of his welding all the time, saying “this is art”. He’s not wrong. Both my parents are insane at what they do, [I’m] in awe of them every day. I also think growing up in a barber shop was where I would’ve started to really look at other men, especially footballers. The walls were always covered in collages of the biggest names in footy at the time: Lampard, Gerrard, and obviously, Becks. My mum would always say "I’m a barber, not a plastic surgeon, I can cut your hair like him." 

A Yorkshire lad born and bred, how did moving down south to London influenced your work?

I’ve lived in London for 5 years now. When I first moved, it was the first time I was able to reflect on my own culture and upbringing, because of how different it was down here. 

You only really know where you’re at once you’ve left and you experience some other culture, [that] you’re able to spot those differences. I’ve made a lot of work in my 5 years about growing up back home. It’s strange because I now feel pretty far removed from that. I think that nostalgia can be quite a crippling thing when being an artist, it can feel like you’re getting trapped in what has been, rather than what needs to be. It feels a little ‘the good old days’ sort of attitude. I’m having to look more at my life now and reference. One eye on the past whilst sprinting forward. I’m more interested in using things like football to talk about masculinity, identity, and gender. I’m interested in idols, shrines, totems, and the complexities of modern England.

A key part of your work involves flipping the narratives of traditional Britain, most recently during the queen’s platinum jubilee. What type of emotions do you aim to evoke from this retelling?

I want to deflate the ego of England. My work is a love letter to a nation that constantly lets us down. This work aims to bring England down to earth. We (the people of England) don't need to massage the ego of England because the legacy and history should not be celebrated. England is glorious and tragic. The England I want to celebrate is modern England, a multi-cultural melting pot. I celebrate this complicated, emotional relationship through my work.

I think the themes of your work resonate with more men than they would perhaps like to admit. What steps can we take toward breaking down the expectations of masculinity?

Less expectations, more fluidity. To quote The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry, cos I think this sums it up perfectly.

Men's rights:
The right to be vulnerable 
The right to be weak
The right to be wrong
The right to be intuitive 
The right to be uncertain
The right to be flexible 
The right to not be ashamed of any of these

Before signing off, what do you have in the pipeline for us to look forward to?

I’ve just left my gallery and I’m working independently, so if you wanna support me and my work, hit me up and fund my next projects haha. I just did a print sale and made my work as cheap as I could to make it more accessible to everyone. All the prints sold out in less than 24 hours. I’m so thankful for everyone who got one. There will be more of that sort of thing in the near future for sure, so keep your eyes out on Instagram if you’re interested. 

But yeah, I’m about to knuckle down and make my next body of work now there’s no expectations on what I should make. I’m no longer living in Sheff'. I can’t really make work about it anymore. Nostalgia can be quite damaging, I think. I’m making work about athletes like footballers and boxers at the moment.

To view more of Corbin's work, head to his website and follow his Instagram @corbinshaww