Review: At Home With Vanley Burke

Ikon Gallery in Birmingham have launched one of their most ambitious projects to date, transporting the entire contents of photographer Vanley Burke’s Nechells flat into the gallery space and inviting everyone to explore

Vanley Burke is widely referred to as the “Godfather of black British photography”. Since arriving in the UK from Jamaica in 1951, and then moving to Birmingham in 1965, he set about documenting the realities of the black British experience. Using the camera given to him by his mother, Vanley photographed the fear, alienation and hope that made up the lives of those around him. Along the way, and by no accident, he also collected the many objects – records, clothes, ornaments, political and religious ephemera – that formed and informed the living experience of the African and Caribbean communities residing in Birmingham; a city at odds with the people it housed.

While much of this is stored in the city library, the majority existed in Burke’s North-East Birmingham flat. For At Home with Vanley Burke Burke is opening up his collection, his experience, and what often feels like his soul, for audiences to share. Room by room, his flat has been recreated, and audiences can walk through and nosey at his personal items. This does not only provide you with a portrait of the artist, but of the community he has dedicated his life to documenting. Like a mirror facing back upon itself, you feel very much that Vanley is both documenter, and subject of this enquiry.

Through him, and the many objects he has acquired, we try to piece together a picture of a culture and lived experience, so often intentionally overlooked and misinterpreted. This provides audiences with a patchworked and insightful understanding; proving his role, socially and artistically, as both essential and integral. As demonstrated by the collage work that adorns his walls, this has been a painstaking, ongoing and meticulous process and one undertaken by passionate dedication.

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Experiencing the exhibition is like unwrapping the layers of cultural pass the parcel. You travel seamlessly through waves of kitsch and pleasant nostalgia – a stack of films recorded off the telly, a delightful mock-brass clock in the shape of Africa – into the depths of racial discrimination, exclusion and hostilities. Once you have opened all the layers, you are left with a gift that is beautiful and overwhelmingly generous.

Flicking through the exhibition catalogue on my train journey back from At Home With Vanley Burke a paragraph by Marlene Smith pulled things into a sharp and critical focus. Referring to one of Vanley’s images, of African Liberation Day in Birmingham 1977, she mentions how despite the huge crowd of young militants gathered to listen to political speakers, not a single member of the local press thought the event worth attending. Had it not been for Vanley, this historic experience, that attracted the active participation of so much of the community, would have existed alone in the memories of those who attended. Not to be shared, or granted any legacy within the city that housed it. At Home With Vanley Burke is part of this legacy. And it exists not only as a testament to times experienced, but as a symbol of what can be lost, when we continue to allow history to be written by the winners, and what can be gained, when we break out of the boxes of convention; traditionally, culturally and artistically.

At Home With Vanley Burke runs from 22 July – 27 September at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.