Vanley Burke: Photographer, Curator, Collector

My visit to Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery surpassed all of my expectations. At Home with Vanley Burke, is a free exhibition. I wasn’t sure what to expect  – I was met with was an explosion of detail, memorabilia, black history and a sharp analysis of British contemporary culture through the eyes of a Jamaican immigrant.

The collection, which started off as a personal collection and grew exponentially with gift donated from members of the local Birmingham community, almost pushing Vanley out of his flat, where the entire collection was housed.

The space in the gallery feels sparse and the items are laid out carefully, reflecting room-by-room Vanley’s home, whilst simultaneously representing the homes of many black families in Birmingham and beyond. At first glance your eyes take in the colourful wall-hangings, the fold up sofa, the African carvings, but when you slow down to really look, you see a child’s desk, images of the funeral of a young man, a jacket weighed down with nails.

Vanley's youth on a see-saw
Vanley’s photo of youth in 1970’s Birmingham – he saw lives already in the balance on the see-saw.

Out of the blue, Vanley appeared in the exhibition to the delight of visitors and we followed him around, pied-piper like, around the gallery as he talked animatedly about each piece, his ideas and the composition. As with any exhibition or book, meeting the curator, author or artist enriches your experience of their work a hundred times over.

Vanley Burke at Ikon Gallery
Suzy meets Vanley Burke at Ikon Gallery

Vanley’s early photographs of young Jamaican youth, capturing their bemused expressions as they were getting accustomed to life in the UK, is what Vanley is best known for. But Vanley’s talents extend to painting, and storytelling. Storytelling Vanley style is about detail – moments, and collecting fragments of past lives that help us to understand the now and maybe even the future.

If you’re considering visiting the exhibition, stop considering it  – just go!

Suzy Rigg

Writing the right words for you






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