Charlotte Bagwell reviews Vanley Burke, By The Rivers Of Birminam, at the MAC

Vanley Burke is an artist who has been documenting the diversity and cosmopolitan characteristics of Birmingham city for almost 50 years. This is why it is fitting that, as part of the MAC’s 50th birthday celebrations, they have staged a retrospective of Burke’s work, By The Rivers Of Birminam, honouring the photographs he has taken in the last half century. Curated by Lynda Morris, many of the images included were taken in the Cannon Hill Park and Handsworth areas of Birmingham, highlighting Burke’s ties with the city, and making this an exhibition where Birmingham people are honestly documented.  Burke was prominent in the representation of the African-Caribbean community at a time when mass media portrayed this community in a very negative light, and this rebalancing of damaging thoughts is observable in this exhibition.

Burke was born in Jamaica in 1951, and was raised by his aunt while his parents moved to the UK in order to start a new life for their family. For his tenth birthday they sent him a camera, and he became hooked on photography. In 1965 he moved to the UK, and by 1967 he was consciously documenting the lives of the African-Caribbean people in his neighbourhood to display their life and struggles after leaving their native homelands.

As part of Burke’s contesting of media portrayals of the Afro-Caribbean community there are consciously few photographs depicting integration with the oppressive white community. There is, however, a number of images showing the connection with the Asian people living in Birmingham, highlighting the support minority that groups gave to one another during times of repression.

Saying this, there is a number of images showing the bridging between Jamaican heritage and modern British life, such as the photograph Velrose, Cannon Hill Park 1972, which depicts a woman of Afro-Caribbean heritage in thoroughly a 1970’s British fashion.  The themes of assimilation are also heightened by the use of objects, taken from the community and displayed in cabinets in the exhibition space. These ornaments however, are not displayed to the best of their ability, and are one of the few shortcomings of the exhibition.

The decision to use black and white photography over colour, especially in recent photographs gives continuity to the exhibition, but also highlights race differences between social groups. This was possibly done in order to show isolation from each another, and to enhance the theme of separate communities, rather than one integrated society. This is also highlighted by the newspaper extracts that accompany the exhibition, with the headlines regarding immigration and Afro-Caribbean people clearly showing the negativity that Burke has spent his career refuting.

Overall, By The Rivers Of Birminam is an exhibition that displays the best of Vanley Burke’s work over his lifetime, and clearly displays its core themes of racial relations and the changing nature of culture.  The people represented in this exhibition form part of the diverse and cosmopolitan city Birmingham is today.

By the Rivers of Birminam runs from Sat 22 September- Sun 18 November at mac Birmingham, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, B12 9QH, free entry

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