Reviews For Friends #23: At Home With Vanley Burke

Oh, the music. The promise!

For this unusual exhibition, renowned photographer Vanley Burke transports the entire contents of his Nechells flat to a floor in the Ikon Gallery, at once announcing his personal collection as public property and, by the same measure, revealing himself as the subject of his own enquiry.

Born in Jamaica, resident of Birmingham since 1965, Burke is often referred to as the “Godfather of Black Photography” and has spoken about his role as an artist being to observe and record the history of those around him. And what a record he has created. At Home With Vanley Burke is a hoarders paradise - walls are adorned with gig posters, news articles and leaflets. Bookshelves are crammed full of paperbacks and weighty tomes, much of which are - unsurprisingly - photographic publications. There are painfully uncomfortable moments - the golliwogs and masks once mass-produced. Reproductions of Birmingham Mail front pages reporting rape and riots in the city. As a north Birmingham girl these reawakened memories of my own.

Fashions, foods and music are of equal interest to the artist - in the bedroom there are colourful items of clothing, Burke’s shoes laid out neatly in their pairs as if waiting for him to come home. There’s rum in the kitchen. Burke has said that this exhibition is a “black experience, but largely a working class experience as well.” Which perhaps explains the distinctly familiar feeling I experienced as I walked through the rooms, noticing some figurine, some ‘tat’ pop-culture item, that I recognised from my nan’s house. The VHS sets, ornamental clocks and other chintz all contribute to the air of a charity shop.

Inevitably the ‘flat’ has a decided retro mood to it; overwhelmed by all these collective experiences, these archived moments in history, the inhabitant himself is virtually lost. The result is an undeniably moving experience… but frustratingly quiet. You’re viewing a museum collection…but are you? You’re not allowed to touch anything, but it feels like you’re round a friend’s house and should be putting the kettle on. For me, this juxtaposition fell a little flat. Speaking about what experiences visitors might have on visiting the exhibition, Burke commented that the gallery is “one of those public spaces that we use to engage socially.” But I can’t agree. The gallery space turns what should be a conversation, a house party, into a somewhat staid spectacle. Tantalisingly off-limits. The lack of real interaction makes for little impact.

We only really feel Burke’s individual mark in his music collection. Records stacked high. CDs everywhere. SO many cassettes with their delicious handwritten labels. There’s even a mini disc player. This room in the exhibition is joyous. If only it would come alive!

 
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