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A Magazine for Sheffield

Melting Mettle: A chat with Corbin Shaw

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Steel's place in Sheffield's cultural identity goes beyond a matter of industrial heritage. The resilience, dependability and unpretentiousness we use to personify the metal has seen it become a solid totem against which the best qualities of the city's people are often defined.

But are comparisons between complex emotional beings and immutable materials always helpful?

"Men in the North have been treated in history as work objects, like cogs in a system," says Harthill-born artist Corbin Shaw, 21, whose personal journey with this idea of the "industrial man" has taken him all the way to Central Saint Martins Art College in London.

Corbin has recently drawn attention from national publications The Face and It's Nice That for his football flag art photography series, a collection which takes inspiration from his relationship with his father, and formative experiences in hyper-masculine environments.

His works draw attention to the way in which aggressive and territorial rhetoric is normalised in terrace fan culture by switching in messages of positive vulnerability, so 'No Surrender' becomes 'Soften Up Hard Lad', or 'We Should Talk About Our Feelings'.

"I was looking at the language used on football flags, and how working class men who often don't express themselves emotionally do so in a flag."

"What started it, actually, was my dad telling me a story about the best man from his wedding, who he used to go to football matches with."

"When he died, his friends got flags made for him, in ode to him, and I just remember thinking that this was art. It was so powerful - all these blokes, creating these pieces of work for him."

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As he describes to me the fragments of thought and feelings which inform his flag and tapestry pieces, Corbin cites the familial working class atmosphere of the Bramall Lane Kop, offers his distaste for the elitist codes that dictate whose work can be called art, and, perhaps most piquantly, suggests the best way to restructure masculinity is from within, and in its "own language".

"For me it's about bringing in those people whose work has never been deemed to be culturally significant."

"All I've ever wanted to do is bring people like my dad into a gallery space, because they do deserve to be there."

"What I want to do with my art is take it back home to Sheffield, and other places, and include them people and get them into spaces where they can have those conversations - about our culture, football, mental health, about masculinity and gender roles, because it needs to be spoken about."

"I think that's when art is most powerful."

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This philosophy is shared by the Boys Don't Cry collective to which he belongs, an online grouping of young British artists who project mirthful, veridical deconstructions of masculinity as it appears in the "dying embers of post-Britpop lad culture".

It's perhaps out of these embers - and in the fact that these critiques of working class gender normativity are coming now from within the culture and not external commentariat - that we can see glimpses of a future which offers men more than the industrial tropes that quietly manacled generations of their forefathers.

Lads like Corbin, the first in his family to go to university, offer a perspective that is indeed vital to support and include as dialogue evolves on how gender is reproduced in our culture .

"I'm very fortunate, really. My mum had a hard life, bless her, and she had this creative energy that she never got to express. It was her that encouraged me to go off and do what I wanted."

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