Interviewed by R. Leonard Bartholomew
Wednesday, September 5, 2012.
The notorious “rape riot” of Birmingham - which followed rumours that a Black teen was raped by an Asian shopkeeper in Lozells, near Handsworth - was something like a “teachable moment” for Vanley Burke, the legendary British photographer whose retrospective, By the Rivers of Birminam, opens this month at the MAC. Vanley, a self effacing, softly spoken Brummie, has spent his entire career recording the determined-yet precarious- coexistence of our multicultural community. Yet on two nights of mayhem in October 2005, he saw, momentarily, on British streets, a spectre of Rwanda - and the shock of the possible.
“I am an old man,” Vanley says resignedly. “I didn’t go out into the middle of the riot, the fighting, with a camera.” What he did, he says, was record events leading up to the disturbances and the aftermath. Two photographs, taken from the events, will feature in the MAC exhibition.
Reflecting on the tragedy – one bystander was killed in the melee-Vanley draws a tentative parallel with the Rwandan calamity: in that radio was used in both cases as a mobilising tool for internecine hostilities. As expected, that correlation is qualified.
“Of course,” he says, “what happened on the streets of Birmingham can in no other way be compared to the Rwanda case, but it showed how ordinary people can become susceptible to rumour.”
“Yet looking at the whole thing,” he continues, “what the riot spoke to me, back then, was about an unsettled community- the Black community.”
Certainly, the setting of the alleged rape -an Asian-owned Black beauty store- became the powder keg that exploded Black insecurities about ownership, authenticity and beauty. Clearly many are continually embarrassed by, and some strongly resentful about so-called ‘profiteering’ by ‘racial outsiders’ from Black beauty products. Others object to the ‘alien reimagining’ of Black physiognomy as a new, Asiatic derivation..in fact, the concerns are many, and in October 2005, it only needed an ill founded rumour to notch another riot in our history.
An image from the exhibition.
Time passes; the river flows.
Seven winters have flashed by since those shameful nights, but has the Black community in Birmingham become more settled? I wanted to know. Is it now less concerned about Asian progress and burgeoning influence? After all, a shop in which the alleged rape took place is reputedly doing a roaring trade with Black customers.
The photo-documentarist chooses his words carefully. “I think people are more disinclined to believe rumours,” he says, doing a politician’s pirouette. “I mean at this point in our history, you probably won’t see Black people out on the streets simply on the basis of hearsay. People will check things out first before accepting whatever their media or neighbour tells them.”
If anyone understands the ebb and flow of Black fortunes in Britain it is Vanley Burke.
Since the late 1960s, his camera has captured the life, loves, faith, optimism and tragedies in our community. By the Rivers of Birminam (a title which consciously yokes the rastaman’s lament with Enoch Powell’s petrified vision) is his grand photographic survey of Afro Caribbean history in Birmingham. The exhibition, which runs from 22 Sept–18 Nov, locates Handsworth as the wellspring of that history; the chapters of which, like the photos themselves – riveting with images of Muhammad Ali mobbed by fans, a brutal standoff in Lozells, mournful faces at a public meeting - is a vivid tableaux of a sometimes besieged, but always creative and optimistic community.
By the Rivers of Birminam – A Vanley Burke Retrospective.
22 Sep –18 Nov, The MAC
Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, B12 9QH
0121 446 3232
R. Leonard Bartholomew (main picture) is the Birmingham Editor for Thenewblackmagazine.com. He is also a freelance marketer and a private English tutor. R.L can be reached on Bartholomew1@blueyonder.co.uk