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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Activism and Scholarship: Achieving the “Plenitude of Blackness”

The Black Studies Association conference – “Blackness in Britain 2015: ‘The Black Special Relationship'” (held at Birmingham City University, 30-31 October 2015) – explored the nature of black activism within and beyond the UK higher education sector, with a particular focus on the historical and contemporary impacts of  African-American scholarship on black intellectual life in Britain.

Established and early career researchers from a range of institutions within the Euro-American academy joined educationalists and grassroots activists from the wider public sphere to present panels on themes that included: Race Politics in Urban Settings; Black Feminist Resistance, African-centered Thought and Healing; Representation and Communication; Educational Experiences; Pedagogy, Curriculum and Theory; Black Political Activism; Literature, Film and Art History; and Blackness in Europe.

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Conference convenor Dr Kehinde Andrews welcomes delegates to the event and introduces Professor Gus John (seated right) as the opening keynote speaker at Birmingham City University, 30 October 2015.

It was fitting that the opening keynote address was given by Professor Gus John, who succinctly historicised the way activist-scholars drawn from the global African diaspora(s) have joined forces at pivotal moments -– such as the inaugural Pan-African Conference held in London in 1900, and the Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in 1945 – to align localised anti-colonial struggles against oppression and successfully instigate world-wide movements of resistance. His talk also emphasised the need to be vigilant and proactive in our campaigns to revise, progress and expand Black Studies curricula across the educational phases – especially as this was seen as key to challenging the ongoing omissions, erasures and marginalisation of Africa-related achievements within established canons of knowledge. Continue reading Activism and Scholarship: Achieving the “Plenitude of Blackness”

“At Home with Vanley Burke”: an immersive installation at the Ikon Gallery

Objects and artworks from Vanley Burke's archive.
Objects and artworks from Vanley Burke’s archive.

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.”

Items displayed in the "front room" of the Vanley Burke installation.
Items displayed in the “front room” of the Vanley Burke installation.

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.

A framed image of "Young Men on a Seesaw" (1984), by Vanley Burke.
A framed image of “Young Men on a Seesaw” (1984), by Vanley Burke.

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.

A tinted studio portrait of Beulah Burke (1917-1981) from Vanley Burke’s personal archive.

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.

Ceramic thimbles and miniature statuettes featuring the grotesque Roberson's "Golly."
Ceramic thimbles and miniature statuettes featuring the grotesque Robertson’s “Golly.”

 

 

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: Continue reading “At Home with Vanley Burke”: an immersive installation at the Ikon Gallery

Black Studies Association Conference: Blackness in Britain 2015 (Birmingham City University, 30-31 October)

The theme of the Black Studies Association annual conference is “The Black Special Relationship: The US influence on British Black Studies.” This two-day event takes place at Birmingham City University, 30-31 October 2015, and its programme is concerned with an examination of ways in which Black British intellectual life has been influenced by African-American scholarship – both in terms of the past histories and present-day narratives of Black populations in the UK and the wider African diaspora.

October 2015 will also mark 70th anniversary of the 5th Pan African Congress held in Manchester in 1945 where key global political activists and intellectuals including Amy Ashwood Garvey, W. E B. Dubois, Ras Makonnen, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah, came together to discuss global and local strategies to dismantle racialised discrimination, colonialism and European imperialism. Black intellectual thought in Britain has historically drawn upon these intellectual trajectories that have travelled across and through African diasporas. Yet more recently, it is through the predominance of African-American intellectual thought and scholarship that African diasporas in the UK have engaged with ideas of blackness, Black studies, race and racism.

Source:  Black Studies Association – http://www.blackstudies.org.uk/conference-and-events/blackness-in-britain-2015/

Delegates at the Pan African Congress (Manchester, UK) in 1945. Image source: http://www.gmlives.org.uk/.
Delegates at the Pan African Congress (Manchester, UK) in 1945. Image source: http://www.gmlives.org.uk/.

In addition to keynote presentations from internationally renowned scholars such as Professor Patricia Hill Collins, Associate Professor Barnor Hesse, Professor Gus John and Professor Denise Ferreira De Silva, the BSA are inviting academics and activists to submit papers for the proposed panel debates which address topics and themes such as (but not limited to): Black feminist activism and scholarship; Pan-Africanism in Britain; Community organising and activism; Blackness, sexualities and sexual politics; The legacy of ‘New Ethnicities’;  Neoliberalism, colonialism, imperialism; Education; Faith, theology, religion and blackness; Black space, black geographies;  African centred thought; and African diasporic borders.

The full list of conference themes, and further information about this event, can be accessed via the Black Studies Association website at http://www.blackstudies.org.uk/conference-and-events/blackness-in-britain-2015/

250-word abstracts should be submitted by 1st May 2015 c/o: conference@blackstudies.org.uk