History, Notebook, Photography, Reviews

Review: Blood & Fire: Our Journey Through Vanley Burke’s History

Photographs made by Vanley Burke stretching back to the beginning of his life as an artist in the late 1960s are being exhibited in Handsworth at the very heart of the community in which much of it was created.

In the first panel of the exhibition Burke notes that his first ever exhibition Handsworth From Inside was at the Grove Lane Junior School in 1983 prior to the work being shown at IKON Gallery. So, four decades on this is clearly a very important retrospective for the artist.

The current exhibition Blood & Fire: Our Journey Through Vanley Burke’s History is part of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Festival on until 30th October 2022.

Its title is a reference to the way in which the exhibition uses Burke’s photography as a means of initiating a wider conversation about the experience of the African Caribbean community and being Black person in Britain. Telling the story of the development of the community in Handsworth and elsewhere in the UK hand in hand with the development of Burke’s practice as a photographic artist and documentary photographer.

Amongst the works on display are some of Burke’s most famous images from the 1970s and 1980s. These include photographs from his short study of a Black boy on a bike with a Union Jack flag, Burke’s documentation of African Liberation Day 1977, and images made in Handsworth in the 1980s such as a baptism at a Pentecostal church. 

There are also many more recent images, just as striking, reflective and characterful, made as part of Burke’s ongoing project of documenting Black life in Handsworth, Birmingham and beyond in the UK. Just as fascinating – for me – are a few incredibly technically proficient and artful images right at the beginning of the exhibition, made very early in Burke’s career as a photographer, long before his Handsworth documentary work first became celebrated. They are very different from the highly focused, documentary style that forms the primary public perception of the images that characterise Burke’s practice, recalling Stigleitz and Billy Brandt in their stylised, dreamlike, almost magical realist effect. 

Accompanying the images are a wealth of material objects, documents and ephemera which tell the story of how the African Caribbean community and Black people more broadly established themselves in Britain. Working with Burke’s photographs they tell a story of rascism and discrimination, as well as pride, resistance and self-organisation as a means of developing and maintaining community in an often hostile environment. The bleak 1964 BBC documentary The Colony plays on a loop in one corner of the exhibition. It features Black intellectuals and well as everyday migrants trying to make their way in the UK discussing their identity and the material challenges that they face in a society which enslaved their ancestors, imperially dominated the islands they called home, and despite inviting them to come and work in Britain treated them with ambivalence at best and immense hostility at worst.    

Cultural production in the form of newspapers for the Black community, record sleeves and a radiogram with a few preset tunes that visitors can listen to as they view the exhibition, which showcase the diverse musical culture that African Caribbean migrants brought to Britain and developed as the community put down roots here.

Vanley Burke’s work, because it often documents everyday life, can sometimes be presented as relatively apolitical. This is something that Blood & Fire: Our Journey Through Vanley Burke’s History challenges. It does this partly through situating the work within the wider culture of struggle that existed amongst Black communities in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, and partly through focusing upon Handsworth’s history of activism and in teasing out the politics that is latent, and often explicit, in Burke’s work.

This takes the form of his documentation of protests and politicians, as well as events such as African Liberation Day 1977 which had an explicit political message. It also comes through in photographs such as the one of a young Black finger pointing accusingly at the white marble bust of a grandee from the era of enslavement, when the British Empire was expanding and racist ideas were being promulgated.

There is a comparable political charge to the decision to hold the exhibition at Soho House. Now owned and managed as a museum by Birmingham Museums Trust, Soho House was built as a semi-rural home, handy for his workshop, by Matthew Boulton the commercial half of the Boulton – Watt partnership that first manufactured powerful, flexible, fuel efficient steam engines at scale. James Watt – the engineering mastermind behind the company – is widely known to have had family connections to the slave trade. Likewise, the company as a whole, and therefore its owners including Matthew Boulton, benefited from an economic system, and early form of capitalism, which depended upon the enslavement and transportation of Black Africans to the Americas. Boulton’s other business interests included companies which did trade with companies involved in slavery, and their steam engines were put to work producing goods which further fueled the trade or used commodities produced by enslaved people.

For this reason an exhibition celebrating African Caribbean settlement in the UK and the creation of thriving Black communities in Britain in places like Handsworth has a deeply political charge.           

As well as documenting the early days of Rastafarians, Black socialists and communists, as well as other community organisations organising themselves and articulating a distinctive and assertive Black identity in Britain, Burke’s work also showcases how in parts of the UK Black people have successfully asserted themselves to attain power or to build significant institutions of their own.

This includes a portrait of Sybil Spence, a long serving Handsworth area councillor and the first Black Lord Mayor of Birmingham, as well as the establishment of African Caribbean restaurants and cafes. Most striking is a juxtaposition of two large scale photographs blown up on the wall at the back of the exhibition. It showcases a photograph of an entirely Black, mostly young, overwhelmingly male crowd at African Liberation Day 1977, with the crowd at Simmer Down Festival (held in the same location, Handsworth Park) in 2015. The Simmer Down Festival Crowd is mostly Black faces, but there are also a lot of mixed race people, white people and South Asian people in the crowd, which is also far more diverse in terms of age and gender. The message that this striking juxtaposition sends is that Black people in Britain more widely are an integral part of the nation, deeply embedded in its fabric and have built a strong identity and institutions: like cultural festivals that articulate their identity.  

Blood & Fire: Our Journey Through Vanley Burke’s History is on at Soho House open Wednesday – Sunday, 11:00-16:00 until 30th October 2022

Photo of the exhibition is the author’s own, all rights reserved 2022