5000 Miles and 70 Years: Vanley Burke’s Windrush-inspired installation at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham

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.

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Detail from the collage-based installation ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ by Vanley Burke – displayed in the Terrace Gallery at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, UK. Photo: Carol Dixon.

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.

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A section of the installation ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ by Vanley Burke, presented across the 1st floor window panes at Midlands Arts Centre. Photo: Carol Dixon.

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)).

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Photograph of Vanley Burke, pictured in front of his installation artwork ‘5000 Miles and 70 Years’ at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham (4 May 2018). Photo: Carol Dixon.

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). Continue reading 5000 Miles and 70 Years: Vanley Burke’s Windrush-inspired installation at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham

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Decolonising and diversifying institutions: creating inclusive spaces where difference is respected

The 2017 Serpentine Pavilion – designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso, and displayed in Kensington Gardens, London (23 June – 8 October) – represents an architectural structure designed with community gatherings and convivial interactions in mind. Kéré’s harmoniously cylindrical, indigo-blue, textured structure, with its lattice-like wood and metal-framed roof fanning out to form a funnel-shaped sloping canopy,  evokes the atmosphere of a central communal meeting place, with multiple openings overhead for letting in natural light to illuminate the interior while also providing shelter from the rain.

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Serpentine Pavilion 2017, designed by the architect Francis Kéré from Gando in Burkina Faso. Photo: Carol Dixon.

This beautiful artwork, inspired by the broad canopies and buttresses of tropical baobabs, signifies a pluralist space where diverse conversations and opportunities to exchange ideas are welcomed. The pavilion’s design, therefore, serves as an appropriate image through which to introduce and illustrate the overarching theme for this year’s Royal Geographical Society annual international conference – “Decolonising Geographical Knowledges.” This complex and wide-ranging theme, which also served as a call to action, was addressed over the course of a stimulating, four-day event programme of lectures, panel sessions and workshops attracting more than 1000 delegates from around the world.

Given that these geographical discussions  were taking place in Kensington less than a two-minute walk from the Serpentine Pavilion signifies that, similarly to the architect’s desire to create a contemporary equivalent of a central community meeting space where all are welcomed to converge and consider the key issues of the day, the RGS-IBG was symbolically also opening up (and opening out) the institution to invite in a greater diversity of publics (and broader critical perspectives) than had hitherto been seen as integral to geography as a subject discipline, where scholarship pursued by privileged white men from elite schools within the Euro-American academy still dominates most of the academic geographical discourse.

The 2017 Chair of the Conference, Sarah Radcliffe (Professor of Latin American Geography, University of Cambridge) was responsible for catalysing debates related to the theme of decolonisation. Her address drew attention to the various ways geography within academia has begun to provide a platform for considering how institutions established during the colonial era can be transformed into more inclusive and ‘decolonial’ spaces, fully divested of the structural inequalities and power hierarchies that previously allowed elitism, exclusions and discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, religion, nationality, educational background, disability, LGBTQ+ identities to persist and endure long after the end of formal colonial rule. Continue reading Decolonising and diversifying institutions: creating inclusive spaces where difference is respected

African Diaspora Arts and Scholar-Activism at the 6th Biennial Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Tampere, Finland, July 2017)

On 6th July 2017 more than 200 delegates from 20 countries gathered in the city of Tampere, Finland, to participate in the 6th Biennial ‘Afroeuropeans’ Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe – convened and hosted by the Academy of Finland Research Fellow Dr Anna Rastas (Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Tampere), working in partnership with a team of scholars, artists and administrators from Aalto University, Sibelius Academy, the University of Tampere and the University of Helsinki.

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Delegates at the 6th Afroeuropeans Network Conference, Linna Building, University of Tampere, Finland. 6 July 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The  conference took place over three days, specifically scheduled to also coincide with Tampere’s hosting of the FEST AFRIKA 2017 cultural programme of live music, poetry and spoken word performances by solo musicians, dancers, bands, dub poets and other literary and performing arts practitioners from continental Africa and the African and Caribbean diasporas in Europe.

Keynote Address by Professor Paul Gilroy

The conference’s opening keynote address was given by the internationally renowned social scientist, literature scholar and cultural theorist Professor Paul Gilroy (American and English Literature, King’s College, University of London), who gave a wide-ranging presentation about race and racism, inequalities, border politics, the dynamics and impacts of securitisation, and associated activism to stem the problematic rise of ‘securitocracy’ throughout Europe – titled, On the necessity and the impossibility of being a black European [a 2017 re-mix] or the value of anti-racism in the ‘Alt-right’ era.

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Professor Paul Gilroy speaking at the 6th Afroeuropeans Network Conference, University of Tampere, Finland, 6 July 2017. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Through Paul Gilroy’s skillful articulation of what he termed “The Slave Historical Arc” – a tracing of key transitional events, change processes and resistance struggles from the era of transatlantic enslavement through to the contemporary racisms and exclusions imbricated within the political apparatus of our 21st century societies – he was able to explain the emergence of “the impossible condition of being” for black and brown people negotiating the complexities, paradoxes and precarious conditions of our compromised (non-)citizenship in Europe. Continue reading African Diaspora Arts and Scholar-Activism at the 6th Biennial Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Tampere, Finland, July 2017)

BLACK ART MATTERS: Reflecting on the life, works and art-political legacy of Donald Rodney, 1961-1998

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Black Art Matters’ (first broadcast on 29 June 2017) is available to listen to online via the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk. This 30-minute programme features Professor Sonia Boyce MBE (RA) in conversation with family members and friends of the British contemporary visual artist Donald Rodney (1961-1998) – one of the most central and important founding figures involved in the Midlands-based ‘Blk Art Group’ during the 1980s, who sadly passed away two decades ago (due to the illness Sickle Cell).

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Contemporary British artist, and Royal Academician, Professor Sonia Boyce MBE narrates the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Black Art Matters’ about the life and works of Donald Rodney. (URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08vzrth).

Boyce begins her reflective voice-over with a review of Donald Rodney’s visceral and racially charged installation piece The House that Jack Built” (1987). Her perceptive commentary is layered and interspersed with other art-historical observations taken from interviews with several contributing artists and guests who attended the exhibition launch reception for “The Place is Here” (Nottingham Contemporary, 4 February – 30 April 2017).

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Exhibition view of “The House that Jack Built” (1987), by Donald Rodney, displayed as part of the contemporary art exhibition The Place is Here (Nottingham Contemporary, UK, 2017) about the British Black Art movement in the 1980s. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Rodney’s complex, hard-hitting and unsettling mixed-media installation features a set of x-rays of the artist’s body arranged against the gallery wall to form the silhouetted structure of a house, overlaid with white-painted text and pictorial imagery commenting on the traumas and enduring legacies of enslavement, racial segregation, the brutalities of apartheid and other forms of racialized, anti-black violence throughout world history. Prominently positioned on a chair in front of the “house” is a seated figure, with a large tree-like structure sprouting from the neck of a paint-splattered striped shirt to create the slumped frame of a man’s body.
Continue reading BLACK ART MATTERS: Reflecting on the life, works and art-political legacy of Donald Rodney, 1961-1998

British Black Art in the 1980s: Visualising the Political Aesthetics of Sufferation, Resistance and Liberation

PRELUDE:

Reflections from Stuart Hall about the history and significance of the British ‘Black Art’ movement during the 1980s:

“This new ‘horizon’ produced a polemical and politicised art: a highly graphic, iconographic art of line and montage, cut-out and collage, image and slogan: the ‘message’ often appearing too pressing, too immediate, too literal, to brook formal delay and, instead, breaking into ‘writing.’ The black body – stretched, threatened, distorted, degraded, imprisoned, beaten and resisting – became an iconic recurring motif”

Stuart Hall (2006) “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain,’ History Workshop Journal (HWJ), Vol. 61(1), p. 17 (cited by Eddie Chambers in Roots and Culture, 2017, p. 201)

Introduction

I was very pleased to view the exhibition The Place is Here” (Nottingham Contemporary, 4 February – 30 April 2017) during its closing weeks, and spend time engaging with a diverse range of ‘politically aesthetic’ works by artists and collectives prominent in the British Black Art movement of the 1980s.

Curated by Nick Aikens and Sam Thorne, in collaboration with Nicola Guy and a number of consultant artists who were central to the period in focus, the exhibition provided a rare opportunity to see c. 100 artworks covering a range of genres, media and artistic practices by 30 of the most celebrated artists from the UK’s African, Caribbean and South Asian diaspora communities assembled together in one space.

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Poster advertising the Radical Black Art “Working Convention,” held at the Ukaidi Centre in Nottingham, 28 March 1984. Photo: Carol Dixon

Taking as its intellectual departure point the discussions held during the inaugural gathering of the First National Black Art Convention in Wolverhampton (1982), and a second “working convention” held in Nottingham in 1984, the curators and contributing artists presented an art-historical and art-political ‘montage’ of works that exemplified how contemporary visual artists, academics, arts activists, cultural commentators, and other critical thinkers were responding to questions about the role of “Black Art” – or the “Black Art Movement” (as it later came to be known) – in the late-20th century. In particular, this question was being posed as a way of catalysing and bringing to prominence a powerful, highly visible reaction to the many challenging social, political, economic and cultural issues facing ‘people of colour’ in Britain at that time.

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Archival documents and art-political posters displayed at Nottingham Contemporary to contextualize the artworks from the 1980s shown in the exhibition “The Place is Here.” Photo: Carol Dixon

What was immediately clear from the inclusion of a significant selection of archival materials, political posters, documentary films, campaign literature, and other publications representing the work of grassroots anti-racist and social justice organisations active during that decade, was that the British Black Art movement – like the individual artists themselves – did not ever function solely within the (physical or imagined) borders of the United Kingdom as a nation-state.  On the contrary, this movement was always conceived by participants active in these struggles as operating within a much broader, more porous, international and diasporic framework of global(ised) activisms, equalities agendas and human rights campaigns. The wider foci for demonstrating solidarity with other Black activists as part of a transnational struggle included: the Civil Rights movement, trades-union activism in the Caribbean region, the collective fight against apartheid in South Africa, the emergence of radical Black feminist/womanist movements worldwide, LGBTQ rights activism, and ongoing efforts to collectivize against and ‘dismantle’ the many remaining structures and systems of colonial oppression dating back to the period of Western European nations’ occidental expansionism and exploitation of the recently independent nations located throughout the Global South(s).

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My walk through the four large display galleries is recreated in this blog post (see below) in the form of a photographic tour, spotlighting a small selection of the contemporary artworks and document assemblages that I considered highly significant and central to the success of this exhibition.
Continue reading British Black Art in the 1980s: Visualising the Political Aesthetics of Sufferation, Resistance and Liberation