- Vanley Burke
- Gary Stewart
- Museum X
- Arts Council England
Celebrated British Jamaican photographer and artist Vanley Burke launched the first live iteration of his new outdoor sound installation, Reactivating sounds of Blackness, in Handsworth Park, Birmingham, on Sunday 2 April 2023.
Working with artist Gary Stewart and community interest company, Museum X, Reactivating sounds of Blackness took people on a journey through a fusion of layered sounds and conversations exploring Black culture and intangible heritage in Britain.
The free outdoor experience also explored the changing culture within Black communities, particularly in Vanley’s hometown of Birmingham.
Experienced as a sonic trail through Handsworth Park in Birmingham, Reactivating sounds of Blackness included recordings of interviews by Burke, as well as everyday sounds of Blackness and intangible heritage designed to activate memories and emotions from the listener.
Artist Gary Stewart is known for his innovative site-specific works creating art that can be encountered in public spaces drawn from popular culture, everyday ephemera, archives, history, and mythology.
Photographer and artist, Vanley Burke, said:
“I’m known for my photographic work, but exploring and collecting sounds is something I’ve always wanted to do.
“I’m interested in the unique sounds we make; be that washing clothes, cooking, or going to church. So I started to document it.”
Reactivating sounds of Blackness explored the continuing change within Black culture, and drew on interviews and conversations with individuals and communities in Birmingham.
They included conversational interviews with Vanley and members of The Red Earth Collective (a Black-led, Birmingham-based organisation that use the arts to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination in marginalised communities); a former member of the army who sung traditional Jamaican songs and poems; and a mother and daughter who shared stories of childhood.
“As well as speaking to people in the community, I also wanted to record more unique sounds, like the soaking of peas in a pot, breaking open a coconut to make rice and peas, and the washing of clothes.
“I’ve also recorded music and sound from a revival church, an African drumming class, and a funeral to capture what it is to be Black in Britain today.
“I believe in taking art to the people and providing open access, which is why we wanted to present this work in a public space. Parks are at the heart of our communities, and Handsworth Park in particular has been an important part of my work for decades.” – Vanley Burke
A mixture of physical and recorded sound pieces were installed at the bandstand and The Sunken Garden within Handsworth Park.
Artist, Gary Stewart, said:
“This commission is an opportunity to create with Vanley unique spaces of memory where everyday voices can be heard. One of the really special things about him is the way he builds relationships with people and connects with them in a really intimate way.
“This sound installation celebrates ordinary people that have extraordinary stories to tell about their own communities; stories that resonate with other communities as well.
“The simple action of washing clothes or combing hair, and things that happen around the home or in church; they may not feel special, but it’s these shared experiences that bring communities of people together.
“People will experience a range of emotions listening to soundscape, some will be celebratory and others may be haunting; taking people back to an aspect of their life that caused a seismic shift.”
Vanley Burke and Gary Stewart were working with Museum X, a community interest company working with people in creative ways to explore stories of pan African history and culture in Britain, to deliver Reactivating sounds of Blackness.
Museum X is leading the Black British Museum Project; experimenting and testing ideas and co-designs for alternative museum spaces to experience pan African history, art and culture.
Sandra Shakespeare, Director of Museum X, said:
“Vanley is part of the DNA in Birmingham, and because of the relational dynamic to his work, only he could create this multilayered symphony of different memories. Gary works at the intersection of sound, moving image and public engagement.
“We’re thrilled to commission these globally renowned artists. Both artists are concerned with social and political issues and more specifically, history, identity, and culture. Using experimental media practices and technologies Gary works with Vanley to layer, disrupt and distort recorded sounds to create new ways of exploring the unique spaces of Handsworth Park. For Museum X and all the artists we work with, collaboration is key.
“Museum X isn’t a physical museum, we’re creating spaces for what a museum could be. We wanted to take everyday sounds; what you could identify with Blackness and Black culture, and take them outside into a different setting.
“Some of the sounds are everyday, and some are culturally specific. The idea is to find touch points with everyone. We can all find our own stories in Vanely’s work.”
Reactivating sounds of Blackness was part of the Arts&Heritage Meeting Point programme, which works with contemporary artists to explore the importance of social organisations, navigating intangible heritages to expand people’s understanding of heritage stories.
The first live iteration of Reactivating sounds of Blackness opened in Handsworth Park, Birmingham, on Sunday 2 April 2023 from 15:00-17:00.
The outdoor sound piece is still available for people to experience by scanning QR codes located at the bandstand and The Sunken Garden. The trail is self-guided and can be experienced in any order, but visitors may want to start at the bandstand.
A&H commissioned the filmmaker Pascal Vossen to work with Vanley Burke and Gary Stewart on a ‘making of film’ for Reactivating sounds of Blackness, capturing the artists’ process.
“I’ve always tried to champion (if you like) the voice of the ordinary. I think it’s there where many quite important stories are told, because we rarely ever had the chance to – they, the people – rarely have the chance to have their voice heard, or their stories heard.” – Vanley Burke
Episode 5: Reactivating Sounds of Blackness is a soundscape created by Vanley Burke and Gary Stewart, in collaboration with Red Earth Collective. This work includes recordings of interviews by Burke, as well as everyday sounds and intangible heritage from his local area, commissioned as part of A&H’s Meeting Point programme with Museum X, a project to create Britain’s first museum celebrating Black British history, art and culture. Originally broadcast live in Handsworth Park, Birmingham April 2023, this podcast features the artwork, followed by a conversation between Vanley Burke and Gary Stewart.
Museum X is a community interest company, set up to explore Pan-Africanism and its significance to the centrality of Black Britain.
Labels of identity are being contested and evolving, replacing outdated narratives in a time where Britain’s Black population is increasingly diverse.
Museum X works with people and organisations through creative ways to experience cultural heritage. Museum X’s mission is to create a museum with people.
Vanley Burke (born 1951) is a photographer using his position and perspective to produce work which seeks to counteract negative or stereotypical imagery of Black people found in mainstream media. His photographs capture experiences of his community’s arrival in Britain, representing members of the Black community back to themselves in an intimate portrayal. He explores and examines the different landscapes and cultures he encountered, the different ways of survival, and experiences of the wider African Caribbean community.
Luke Fowler with Ilam Park and Ilam Hall: Ilam Actual (version)
A group of young people have worked with Luke Fowler to make a series of short film and sound pieces to be shown at the National Trust’s Ilam Park & YHA Ilam Hall in the Peak District.
Liz Gre at the Royal Shakespeare Company
400 years after Shakespeare’s First Folio was published, Liz Gre’s collaborative new work examines the 1623 collection of comedies, tragedies and histories from the perspectives of refugees living in Stratford-upon-Avon today.