Vanley Burke, born in Jamaica in 1951, resident in Birmingham since 1965, is renowned as a photographer concerned especially with black culture in Britain.
Burke has had numerous exhibitions surveying his career as an artist, and these have sometimes included material from his archive, a vast collection including printed material (posters, flyers, publications), clothes, records, ornaments and countless other items that provide invaluable insights into Britain’s African and Caribbean communities. The religious and political beliefs of black people at home here, their artistic activities, fashions and leisure pursuits, food, health issues and many other aspects of everyday life are all equally of interest to the artist.
The archival items are like photographs in that they 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. Each item not only gives its own particular account – why was it made, where and for whom? – but also it is evocative of a zeitgeist, an evolving spirit of a time, lived through by the artist, that embodies hope as much as fear, feelings of alienation as much as celebration, active resistance and demands for equal opportunity as much as the enjoyment of new adventures. The collection as a whole is thus greater than the sum of its parts and extremely poignant.
Burke’s archive is partly in storage at the Library of Birmingham, but most of it is to be found in his flat in Nechells, near Birmingham’s city centre, in filing cabinets or boxes or on display. It is an extraordinary interior, a cabinet of wonderful curiosities. This is an exhibition, more or less, of its entire contents – the archive with artworks and souvenirs, as well as decor and furniture, wardrobe, kitchenware etcetera – so that the artist is revealed as a subject of his own enquiry. Vanley Burke’s personal story, involving such a vital archival impulse, is integral to the bigger picture he is making for us, on this occasion with the help of many others.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, priced £18, special exhibition price £15, illustrated with Vanley Burke’s photographs and including texts by Pete James, Curator of Photographs at the Library of Birmingham, and artist/curator Marlene Smith.
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At Home with Vanley Burke is supported by the Mill Dam Trust and funds raised through Art Happens, the Art Fund’s crowd-funding platform.