25 May 2022

Blood & Fire:
Our Journey Through Vanley Burke's History opens in Handsworth as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival

Wednesday 25 May to Sunday 30 October 2022

Personal objects and evocative images by renowned photographer Vanley Burke, some of which have never been on public display before, can now be seen in a new exhibition at Soho House, Handsworth, as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival, taking visitors on a journey through the artist’s history and the Black British experience. 

Open now, Blood & Fire: Our Journey Through Vanley Burke's History, will see Burke re-examine his vast personal collection of objects which pieces together a story of migration shared by many from the African Caribbean community who came to settle in the UK and live in Birmingham. While photography on display will illustrate a wider, connected history of Black British experiences using the communities of Birmingham as a lens. 

In the 1990s Burke lost a number of archival materials to a house fire. The fire served as a turning point for his practice and this exhibition questions what it means to put these everyday objects into a curatorial and historical context.

Combined into one thought-provoking exhibition, the displays depict a vivid image of what life was like for those who made the city their home, sparking memories for many visitors, and linking their experiences to the present day.

From letters and books, with worn pages that describe the new life many were making for themselves, to dominoes and draughts that would have been played with friends and neighbours whilst reminiscing about home. These objects sit alongside striking, monochrome images by Burke that document the Black British experience spanning over 50 years.

Photographs from everyday life, such as dances at the Digbeth Civic Centre in 1978 and a group of girls who are captured performing the songs of The Supremes in 1970, are juxtaposed with bold images of rallies and marches, such as Africa Liberation Day, Soho Road, 1977 and an Anti-Nazi demonstration in West Bromwich, 1979.

The exhibition brings the discussion right up to date with the display of one of Burke’s photos from the Black Lives Matter protest in Centenary Square, Birmingham in 2021, and is part of a selection of images which haven’t been displayed in public before, including On yu Bike, Handsworth Park, 1970, which is recognisable as it depicts Winford Fagan cycling away with a Union Jack flag on his bike, after Burke had taken his now famous Boy with a Flag photograph. 

Vanley Burke was born in Jamaica in 1951 and arrived in Birmingham in 1965 aged 15. A love of photography was sparked when he received a camera from his mother when he was 10, and once here in the city, he began documenting the lives and experiences of Black people. 

The exhibition aims to connect with those that resonate with Burke’s archive, and through a series of engagement events, visitors will be asked to share their experiences and stories to continue the conversation about Black life in Birmingham, using the past to pave the way for the future.

Events include community archiving evenings on Saturday 25th June and 10th September where attendees are encouraged to bring 2D material that records the story of their family and life in Birmingham. Items may include photographs, certificates, letters, faxes, telegrams and postcards, which will be scanned on-site for Vanley Burke to create an ongoing public record of life for local people.

To mark Windrush Day on Wednesday 22nd June, listen to music and stories from local singer Laura Ige, accompanied by her guitarist, as she shares the experiences of her father who journeyed to England from the Caribbean. With free refreshments and simple craft activities, this is the perfect opportunity to share and reflect on this important anniversary day. 

There will also be an online in conversation event on Saturday 16th July exploring the importance of archiving Black histories within and outside of institutions, along with a Games Night on Thursday 23rd June which will offer an opportunity to get away from the TV and meet new neighbours or old friends over familiar favourites such as Ludo, draughts and dominoes.

Vanley Burke said: “I had my first exhibition at Grove Lane Junior School back in 1983; ‘Handsworth From Inside’ which was later shown at the Ikon Gallery. After thirty-nine years I am exhibiting in Handsworth again. This exhibition, which I am quite excited about, is drawn from photographs I’ve taken in Handsworth’s Black community over the past fifty years. It also includes objects from my archive which I have assembled alongside my photography.

“My aim is to reunite the people with their memories aiding them to reflect with others on the journeys and the effort their families have made to establish themselves in a strange land. The exhibition also highlights the need for a building to create an archive where African Caribbean people can be the custodian and curators of their past.”

Katie Morton, Exhibitions Team Leader at Birmingham Museums Trust, said: “Vanley is one of the UK’s leading Black artists of the commonwealth generation, and while the spotlight is on Birmingham this year, it feels right to bring this exhibition to Soho House and Handsworth to continue the conversation with communities living in Birmingham today. It’s fascinating to be able to explore Vanley’s personal collection and we can’t wait for visitors to see the exhibition now it’s open.”

Blood & Fire: Our Journey Through Vanley Burke's History is presented by the Birmingham 2022 Festival and generously supported by Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The exhibition is free and open Wednesday - Sunday, 11am - 4pm. For more information visit Visitors to the exhibition will also have the option to book a paid guided tour of Soho House.