Handsworth Park, Birmingham B20 2BY and podcast

Vanley Burke & Gary Stewart: Reactivating Sounds of Blackness, 2023

Text by Melissa Baksh

Part of a commission by Arts&Heritage with Museum X

This is the third of three features on artists commissioned by Arts&Heritage as part of their artist-led research programme, Meeting Point. Arts&Heritage (A&H) is a national agency that forges connections between artists, communities, historic sites and museums. Its Meeting Point programme explores the tangible and intangible heritage of museums and collections through collaborations between artists, participants and heritage partners.

The A&H Meeting Point Commissions for 2022-2023 partnered The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) with Liz Gre, National Trust and Youth Hostel Association (YHA) with Luke Fowler, and Museum X – a project creating Britain’s first museum celebrating Black British history, art and culture - with photographer Vanley Burke and audio artist Gary Stewart.

In this final feature, art historian, writer, educator and broadcaster/DJ Melissa Baksh responds to Reactivating Sounds of Blackness, an on site, live sharing in Handsworth Park, Birmingham, on Sunday 2 April 2023 and the subsequent podcast which features voices of the Black community in and around Handsworth Park, Vanley Burke’s home neighbourhood. Extracts include memories and testimonies from the Windrush generation and their children and contributions from members of The Red Earth Collective, a Black-led, Birmingham-based organisation that uses the arts to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination in marginalised communities. Museum X, the lead partner under the direction of Sandra Shakespeare, paired Vanley Burke, best known for his visual archive of photography, with interdisciplinary artist Gary Stewart and together they created many hours of both touching and candid recordings. The subsequent podcast includes an interview with Burke and Stewart and an edited 40 minute soundscape.

What is the earliest memory that you can recall? How about the earliest sound?

Sounds - much like sights and smells - can be hugely evocative, and even mundane, everyday sounds can trigger emotionally charged, latent memories, connecting us to loved ones, familiar places and times gone by.

The sounds we make have always been an inspiration for artist Vanley Burke, who, in an Arts&Heritage podcast explains: “I used to record my mother’s church Wednesday fasting at Austin Road Pentecostal Church, Handsworth – what they were asking God for, and what people in the Caribbean were asking for in their letters.”

Burke and Gary Stewart were invited to create an artwork which delved into and expanded Burke’s already extensive archive of sound recordings of people from the Caribbean diaspora and their experiences by Sandra Shakespeare from Museum X, as part of the Arts&Heritage’s Meeting Point programme. Burke, who had always wanted to find a way to share his recorded experiences of people from the Caribbean diaspora, saw a great opportunity in this. He embarked on a collaboration with sound artist Stewart, who works across both visual arts and sound, with a particular interest in notions of aural history, identity and politics. For Burke, the transient nature of sound makes this project all the more poignant. “It is an attempt to capture the voices and experiences before they disappear forever” he notes. “Before our language changes.”

The resultant collaborative soundscape highlights the stories of traditionally marginalised and peripheral voices through recordings of aural history interviews as well as “everyday sounds of blackness”- non-literal, non-didactic sounds, such as the combing of hair, peas being shelled and the playing of Dominoes. This fusion of layered sounds and conversations exploring Black culture and intangible heritage in Britain holds a quiet kind of power, as Burke notes: “People don’t recognise that they are in possession of such powerful stories.”

During a visit to James Island in The Gambia – where captured Africans were held prior to being taken to the Americas – upon seeing the trees, Burke wondered, “if trees could talk, what stories would they tell us?” With this came the idea to take his work outside, rather than using established formal sites such as galleries. The initial showcase of his soundscape took place as a first iteration within the ‘Sunken Garden’ inside Handsworth Park, Birmingham on 2nd April 2023. This innovative presentation was accomplished by fixing loudspeakers to the trees. transmitting a series of intricate layered sound recordings projected in the outdoor space of the park, amplified via a mobile speaker.

The soundscape includes both Burke’s archive of recordings and new conversational interviews with Burke and members of The Red Earth Collective - a Black-led, Birmingham-based organisation that uses the arts to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination in marginalised communities. Burke opens the interviews with the question: “When did you first realise you were Black?” One participant tells of her mother’s “telephone voice” - the voice she would adopt when speaking to white people.

“What is your earliest memory?” is another prompt. For one woman, it is “walking up a dark staircase, I can hear the creaking sound of my father’s footsteps (…) he’s carrying me and I can smell his aftershave. That’s one of the first memories I have, and it’s a really strong memory.”

In one recording, a group of women sit down to eat a meal. One woman announces: “I don’t want to start with my earliest memory, I want to start with the pail,” - a household item reminiscent of a bygone era. The group discuss how toilets were outdoors, and there was no running water, so you had to use the pail at night, or during “monthly bleeds.”

The soundscape also features lengthier, rousing recordings of uplifting music, song and celebration. This includes an annual event which celebrates ‘Arise and Honour of our Enslaved Ancestors, a ceremony held by Rev Canon Eve Pitts - the first black female Church of England Vicar - at the Holy Trinity Church in Birmingham, which celebrates the lives of Caribbean and African people which honours, remembers and celebrates those who rose from the challenges of enslavement.

Another interview with a woman named Mavis sheds light on the darker side of life for the people of the Caribbean diaspora in Britain, and the flagrant racism that black people had to endure. In Mavis’ case, this took the form of painful racist comments from her school teacher with regards to the darkness of her skin, said before the entire class.

For Burke, diversifying the stories we tell - and honour - is imperative. “We are sometimes just repeating the voice of the people we call our oppressors through the education that we are receiving. Sometimes it’s very good just to hear the voice of the ordinary, and I will forever champion that in the photographs I’ve taken and also in the voices I try to record.” Like Burke, Stewart states that people don’t realise that they are in possession of valuable and interesting stories. “People are given the sense that there is nothing important to their lives and their contribution to ‘history’ is not one of any real significance, when it is quite the opposite.”

Through this project, the pair were determined to represent and preserve as many stories as possible, to articulate the complexity within the black community, which is so-often singularly portrayed. Stewart ends, “We have been told over the years that we are of no value and that we have contributed nothing to society. But we all contribute to humanity in various ways.”

The podcast and a film on the making of the project are available online.

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