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A monument to a ping pong purveyor that saved shell and tusk

Around 250 local residents turned out on Saturday 6 February to witness the unveiling of a new art installation in Highams Park that it is probably safe to say is unique. It’s doubtful that anywhere else in the world there is a four by two metre stainless steel structure containing hundreds of ping pong ball sized holes and depicting the image of an elephant and a tortoise!

The obvious question is why. We all know art can sometimes be challenging and surreal, but in this case the roots of this unusual piece of art lie deep in the history of Highams Park. Many local people will remember the Tesco superstore being built just a few years ago, but you will have to have a longer memory to recall the old Halex Factory that existed on that site beforehand.

The Halex factory, which made sheet plastic, occupied the site for 74 years between 1897 and 1971, and it would be no exaggeration to say it put Highams Park on the map. Halex were the first producers of substitute ivory and tortoiseshell, used for cutlery handles and brooches – thus the connection to the elephant and the tortoise. They were also the world’s biggest manufacturer of ping pong balls – at one point virtually every single table tennis ball in the world was made in Highams Park.

The installation was created by local resident Barnaby Barford, an internationally acclaimed artist, who recently exhibited at the V&A Museum. “My idea was to use the original Halex factory logo, an etching of an elephant and tortoise, walking arm in arm – it’s a beautifully surreal image that was used up until 1921,” he explained.

“It’s become the basis of the piece, with the animals now walking towards each other. I’ve never done a piece of public art like this before and throughout the whole process was one overriding thought – that I live in Highams Park and I’ll have to walk past it every day.”

Barnaby therefore embraced community engagement in the process, working with Oak Hill and Handsworth Primary schools and Joseph Clark School for the visually impaired to get them involved in creating work related to the sculpture.

Councillor Clare Coghill, Cabinet Member for Economic Growth and High Streets, said, “The work is amazing and provides a real focal point for the community. It has been paid for through monies we leveraged from Tesco as part of the development deal. So is a nice way of giving something back to the community.

“As well as considering how developments impact on local infrastructure and roads, as a local authority it is also important that we ensure progress respects the history and the heritage of communities. Plastic is so often used as a pejorative term these days, but the best part of 120 years ago what Halex were doing was truly pioneering.

“I hope the people of Highams Park are proud of the fact this borough saved so many elephants and tortoises from being turned into fork handles! Not to mention the many happy hours of table tennis we can take credit for.”

PHOTO: Councillor Clare Coghill and internationally acclaimed artist Barnaby Barford at the unveiling of his art installation in Highams Park.


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