When curators of the recently opened exhibition at the Ikon Gallery invited audiences to feel “At Home with Vanley Burke“ (22 July – 27 September 2015) I was quite cautious about whether a mainstream British art gallery could create a welcoming space that centralised black British social, political and cultural narratives. However, I immediately overcame my initial skepticism as soon as I stepped over the threshold of this innovative and sensitively curated installation about the life and work of Birmingham-based photographer Vanley Burke (b. 1951) – an artist, activist and cultural commentator widely regarded as the “Godfather of Black British photography.”
The exhibition – co-curated by Vanley Burke and Jonathan Watkins, with the assistance of Roma Piotrowska – features the entire contents of Vanley Burke’s flat in the Nechells area of Birmingham, carefully re-positioned and creatively displayed in five rooms throughout the 1st floor of the Ikon’s contemporary exhibition space.
The presentation juxtaposes artworks from the photographer’s celebrated portfolio of documentary images and iconic portraiture with archival documents, political posters, news cuttings, books, records, furniture, clothing, household utensils, ornaments and a variety of other ephemera collected and archived by Vanley Burke over more than half a century since arriving in the UK as a teenager from St Thomas, Jamaica, in 1965.
Hundreds of cultural objects are assembled and displayed in five thematic sections that broadly correspond with the entrance hallway, kitchen, study, living room and bedroom of Vanley Burke’s home. Additional items are also positioned in the interstitial spaces connecting the rooms to form a seamless and continuous pathway through the exhibition.
From the large bevelled wall mirror positioned at the entrance to the exhibition, to studio portraits of family members displayed in the corridor areas, a classic 1960s radiogram surrounded by kitsch, crocheted plastic doilies, and a floor-to-ceiling vinyl collection, much of this content evokes the “West Indian front room” aesthetics of post-World War 2 urban Britain.
However, these everyday objects are poignantly interspersed with more politically charged artworks and ephemera – including documentary photographs of racist graffiti painted on brick walls by the far-right National Front, the grotesque Robertson’s “Golly” featured on ceramic thimbles, soft toys and miniature statuettes, and a pile of rusting chains and instruments of torture from the enslavement era tightly packed into a small child’s wooden school desk. During a recent interview recorded for the exhibition in July 2015 Vanley Burke explained his reasons for collecting and archiving this type of material as follows:
“Stories and memories are attached to objects and I’m collecting them. I’m also interested in mass-produced objects relating to black people in Britain – the paraphernalia that was used visually to describe black people; figurines, masks, golliwogs. Although they may not have been owned by us at the time, they are still a part of our narrative.”
– Vanley Burke (Interviewed at the Ikon Gallery, July 2015)
Vanley Burke’s extensive and eclectic collection of artworks, artefacts and personal items extends far beyond his individualised, autobiographical archiving process to symbolise broader, collective articulations of the social and cultural history of mid-20th century Caribbean migrants to Britain. For this reason, scholars such as artist-curator Marlene Smith and curator and academic Professor Eddie Chambers rightly refer to Vanley Burke as “the foremost chronicler of Birmingham’s black history” and “custodian of the history and the cultural memory of Black Birmingham,” respectively.
Walking through this exhibition is a powerfully immersive, multi-sensory experience that takes you further than the conventional occularcentrism of Western museum and gallery spaces into a richer realm of post-Cartesian materialities – where encounters with objects and artworks become dialogical and corporeal, as explained by Harriet Hawkins:
“Images and paintings evoke just as much of an embodied response as installation. However, in installation’s twinning together of spatial politics with an embodied visual politics it, in effect, brings the consciousness of ones corporeality to the forefront of the art experience.”
– Harriet Hawkins (2010: 335)
I am delighted that Vanley Burke was generous enough to share his photographic portfolio and extensive collection of archival materials with members of the general public in this way. By granting permission to the curators at Ikon to recreate and present the contents of his flat and his archive as an installation he has given us all a rare insight into his world, a deeper understanding of black British social history through his meticulous collecting of everyday objects, and a richer aesthetic experience of the process of accumulative immersion.
The Ikon’s implied invitation to feel “at home” with Vanley Burke has, in my view, successfully achieved its objectives in every sense of those words. As I walked through the space, sat among the objects, flicked through the numerous catalogues of Vanley Burke’s photography exhibitions, and reminisced about the historic events referenced throughout the rooms, I felt informed and inspired, educated and entertained in equal measure.
Moreover, the intimate homeliness of the complex yet comfortable space made it possible to imagine sitting with Vanley himself, perhaps enjoying Jamaican-style ‘back-a-yard’ hospitality with the aroma of beef patties warming in the oven and the sweet smell of nutmeg sprinkled in a chilled glass of Guinness punch.
It is not surprising that Vanley Burke regularly visits the installation to meet and greet visiting audiences, engage in conversations about his collections, and occasionally play a game of dominoes with people dropping by.
Clearly, this is an exhibition space where one can metaphorically lay you hat and feel at home in the company of Vanley Burke’s residential “cabinet of curiosities”. Through his skillful camera work, and his carefully considered archival interventions over five decades, this keenly observant and perceptive artist has helped to re-position post-war black British histories and cultural heritage from conventional spaces of marginality right into the centre of the frame.
At Home with Vanley Burke will be displayed at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham until 27th September 2015. A free Artist’s Talk – Vanley Burke in conversation with Soweto Kinch – is scheduled for Thursday 10 September, 6.30-8.00pm, and can be booked online via the Ikon Gallery website.
NOTES AND REFERENCES:
Chambers, Eddie (2012) “An Inglan Story, An Inglan History”, catalogue essay for the exhibition Vanley Burke: By the Rivers of Birminam. Midlands Arts Centre (MAC), Birmingham, 22 September – 18 November 2012. pp. 11-14.
Hawkins, Harriet (2010) “‘The argument of the eye’? The cultural geographies of installation art.” Cultural Geographies 17 (3), pp. 321-340.
Ikon Gallery website – https://ikon-gallery.org/
Smith, Marlene (2015) “Looking Company”, in At Home with Vanley Burke [Exhibition catalogue, with a foreword by Jonathan Watkins]. Birmingham: Ikon Gallery, pp. 21-25.
Vanley Burke’s website – http://www.vanley.co.uk/
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[…] (Birmingham City University) presented a paper about the archive of documentary photographer Vanley Burke, and discussed his life as an arts activist and archivist with reference to Walter […]