A new site-specific installation ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ by the internationally renowned photographer Vanley Burke was launched at Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) in Birmingham on Friday 4 May 2018. The installation featured a collage of archival materials and photographs from the artist’s extensive portfolio of images relating to the lived experiences of African and Caribbean diaspora communities in Britain since the mid-20th century.
Displayed across the length of the Terrace Gallery on the venue’s ground floor, and also as a full-colour frieze exhibited across several 1st floor window panes, the installation offered poignant insights into the lives of Vanley Burke’s family and friends, as well as wider African-Caribbean diaspora communities settled in the West Midlands and other regions of the UK over several decades.
The artwork ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ was specifically commissioned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush passenger ship at Tilbury Docks in Essex on 22nd June 1948 carrying on board c.500 migrants from islands and nations in the Caribbean region – many of whom were former servicemen and women who had served in the British armed forces and auxiliary services throughout the Second World War. The arrival of the Windrush has subsequently become a symbolic event in the social, economic and cultural history of Britain and the Commonwealth and, as such, the arrival date signifies the beginning of what is now referred to as the era of the ‘Windrush Generation.’ However, as Vanley’s installation illustrates, the imagery and documentation featured in the collage communicates a longer-standing, further-reaching and more complex history of Britain’s relationship with the Caribbean region and its people that encompasses the era of transatlantic enslavement, centuries of colonial exploitation, global trade links and the legacies of British imperialism in the West Indies. Interspersed with the family photographs, street scenes, images of domestic interiors and documentation about working class life from the past seven decades are also extracts from political posters, anti-racism campaign leaflets, news cuttings and photographs of protest marches and demonstrations that articulate the ongoing struggles of diasporans from the Caribbean to achieve their rights, equalities and freedoms as British citizens – not only for themselves, but also for subsequent generations of descendants born in the UK.
Photographer Vanley Burke was born in Jamaica in 1951 and migrated to Britain as a teenager in 1965. Since that time he has become one of the most important documentarians of black British history – using his skills as a photographer, as well as his passion for archiving, to produce and preserve a powerful, emotionally charged and thought-provoking visual narrative about the post-war lived experiences of black Britons. It is for these reasons that many art historians, sociologists and cultural studies scholars rightfully 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” (see, for example, the book ‘Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s’ by Eddie Chambers (IB Tauris, 2014)).
It was an honour and a privilege for me to meet Vanley Burke at the launch event for his new site-specific installation, and I even managed to get a picture of him standing in front of his thought-provoking new artwork (shown above).
This insightful installation – ‘Vanley Burke: 5000 Miles and 70 Years’ – will be on display at Midlands Arts Centre as part of a wider programme of ‘Beyond Windrush’ exhibitions until Sunday 8th July 2018. Other highlights in the event programme include:
- A photography exhibition by the award-winning artist Andrew Jackson – titled ‘From a Small Island.’ This exhibition of landscape photography and portraiture explores the psychological impacts of migration through images of three generations of black Britons from the Caribbean diaspora. Jackson’s portfolio includes images taken in Jamaica and the UK and his exhibition draws on his own parents’ experiences of migration to examine the changing socio-economic and political landscapes of Britain and the Caribbean over the past sixty years. The photographs will be on display until Sunday 8 July 2018.
- A display of fieldwork photographs and commissioned artworks curated by the CARISCC (Caribbean Studies) Research Network (managed via the University of Birmingham) – titled ‘Negotiating Caribbean In/Securities and Creativity.’ The exhibition will be displayed at Midlands Arts Centre until Sunday 1 July 2018.
- ‘Raphael Albert: Miss Black and Beautiful’ – an exhibition of studio portraiture and event-based photographs taken by the artist and event promoter Raphael Albert, which document the cultural politics of beauty pageants within Britain’s black communities during the 1960s and 1970s. This touring exhibition – first exhibited in London in 2016 – was curated by Renée Mussai and organised by Autograph ABP (Association of Black Photographers).
Further details about the Beyond Windrush exhibition programme at Midlands Arts Centre (May – July 2018) are available online at https://macbirmingham.co.uk/beyond-windrush.