At Home with Vanley Burke at the Ikon (until 27 September) is unlike most exhibitions in that it presents the visitor with the entire contents of Vanley’s flat in Nechells, north-east Birmingham. Most of us know Vanley as a photographer, working in Britain and Birmingham since the 1960s, but he is also a collector and archivist. This exhibition allows us an unusual insight into Vanley’s own world. As Marlene Smith writes in the excellent accompanying guide, ‘now we see him’.
In an interview from July 2015, Vanley Burke talks of capturing experience and of collecting material that reflects the African-Caribbean community, typically unrepresented in many histories, or, if represented at all, often inaccurate or incorrect. This is a critical moment in the city for archives – the drastic and irreversibly damaging cuts to the archive service at the Library of Birmingham, something that has directly affected many PHC members, has forced us to consider questions around the importance of the archive, and often to find justification for the collecting of memories. The perilous position of the archive and its importance to Birmingham past and present has been discussed elsewhere by Izzy Mohammed, Jim Ranahan and myself. One of the reasons much of Vanley’s archive is now housed at the Library of Birmingham is precisely because of projects such as Black Pasts, Birmingham Futures and Connecting Histories, both hugely important and under-recognised work by archivists, academics and artists at Birmingham Archives & Heritage that called for a higher profile for our multi-cultural history.
This exhibition challenges us to think about what the archive means, what it is, and why it is essential to preserve it. In his foreword to the accompanying guide, Jonathan Watkins, Ikon Director, observes that ‘archival items … are indexical traces of human presence, countless pieces of evidence of actual experience. The collection of them suggests insurance against certain memories being lost, and that there will be a repository of raw material that can give rise to alternative histories’. Many of us believe in the importance of Watkins’ words, of collecting and remembering the everyday, and the importance of presenting alternative histories, and that we must actively prevent these memories being lost, or inaccessible, or ignored. As ‘chronicler of Birmingham’s black history’, here evident amongst fruit bowls, old video recordings of TV programmes like Dallas and Taggart, toys, photos of Paul Robeson and Karl Marx, collections of iron slave restraints, and maps, the intimacy found in Vanley’s photographic work is now presented to us, as we walk though his home, and through his life, merging public and private, past and present.
In his essay for the exhibition guide, Pete James, Curator of Photographs at the Library of Birmingham, writes that the objects we can see ‘serve to remind us of how these kinds of everyday and seemingly disposable things are often imbued with significance which we, from our position in the present, cannot fully comprehend’. Vanley Burke’s work, and this intimate exhibition, reminds us of the necessity of doing this, of us, in the present, capturing and preserving memories, in order to reflect the experience of everyday people.
Images by Nicola Gauld