International renowned photographer Vanley Burke will be launching a brand new photography exhibition celebrating working class and migrant communities in Birmingham this week.

The Ikon Gallery is showcasing a series of portraits documenting migrant communities in the city as part of a project, led by the University of Birmingham, capturing the migrant experience.

Titled A Gift to Birmingham, the free public exhibition will be unveiled at the gallery in Brindley Place on Wednesday (23 March), with Burke attending the launch alongside some of the residents he has photographed in recent months.

The new Vanley Burke exhibition features seventeen portraits of members of Migrant Voice, a migrant-led national organisation with a hub in BirminghamVanley Burke
The new Vanley Burke exhibition features seventeen portraits of members of Migrant Voice, including Lukano, seen here “looking out for others”

The exhibition features seventeen portraits of members of Migrant Voice, a migrant-led national organisation with a regional West Midlands hub.

Curators at Ikon Gallery said the portraits represented an honest portrayal of people of migrant heritage.

“For Vanley Burke, it was important to portray participants in their natural environments, including their homes, community centres and parks, across the inner-city.

“Each image tells a story of migration, either recent or long past, with subjects accompanied or alone. Displayed together, the photographs present a portrait of Birmingham as a superdiverse city, with residents from many parts of the world.”

Before being photographed by Vanley Burke, each participant was interviewed, by researchers from the School of Education, University of Birmingham Migrant Voice
Before being photographed by Vanley Burke, each participant was interviewed by researchers from the University of Birmingham

Before being photographed each participant was interviewed, by researchers from the School of Education, University of Birmingham, on their experience of living and working in Birmingham. Everyone photographed by Burke will also receive a printed copy of their portrait.

The discussions included both positive experiences, of the city’s resources and infrastructure, and more challenging aspects such as the limited interaction between migrant and host communities, as well as the need to shift attention from children’s academic attainment towards greater cultural understanding in schools.

Through these interviews, photographic documentation, exhibition co-curation and the creation of school resources, this six-month collaborative research project has considered the role of artists, educators and activists in challenging assumptions about migration and breaking down institutional and intercommunal barriers.

Vanley Burke – often described as the ‘Godfather of Black British Photography’ – is an artist, photographer and curator whose archive, surveying the Black British experience, is held at the Library of Birmingham. His exhibition, At Home with Vanley Burke, took place at Ikon Gallery in 2015.

Zarah Begum with her mother Lutfa at Saathi House, photographed by Vanley BurkeVanley Burke
Zarah Begum with her mother Lutfa at Saathi House, photographed by Vanley Burke

Ikon has, in collaboration with Dr Reza Gholami, University of Birmingham, used the materials to create a set of schools’ packs (Key Stages, 1, 2 and 3) for teachers and students to openly discuss sensitive issues and directly address conflict.

Designed by artist educator Haseebah Ali, they include critical questions – on subjects of race, language, culture and religion – and creative exercises, allowing learners to express their identities. The schools’ packs will be available to download for free from Ikon’s website in late March.

The showcase at Ikon, and the schools’ packs, also include a film produced by Migrant Voice which raises awareness of the difficulties experienced by those migrating to and within the UK.

These resources are intended for practical application, in dismantling of hostile environments and creating safe spaces, to promote an anti-racist agenda within and beyond the classroom.

Vanley Burke met with some of the Birmingham residents he photographed at Saathi House in Aston Saathi House
Vanley Burke met with some of the Birmingham residents he photographed at Saathi House in Aston

Dr Reza Gholami, Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education at the University of Birmingham, said:

“Over the past six months, the NICE-B project has enjoyed a fruitful and impactful partnership with Ikon. Our collaboration has enabled us to work together with renowned artists and organisations such as Vanley Burke and Migrant Voice, as well as with Birmingham’s communities, to explore and address social and educational issues of central importance to the city and the wider country.

“Our co-produced digital education packs are a key outcome of our ongoing collaboration and will be a useful resource to the city’s schools and policy makers as they continue to battle social and educational disparities. This exhibition is a fantastic way for people learn more about, and engage with, our work.”

A Gift to Birmingham was commissioned as part of the ‘Non-formal Intercommunal Education in Birmingham (NICE-B)’ project, led by Dr Reza Gholami and will continue to tour to Saathi House in Aston after its debut at Ikon Gallery.


WATCH | Behind-the-scenes with Vanley Burke at Saathi House:


A Gift to Birmingham by Vanley Burke is on display at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham between 23 March – 3 April 2022, with a special launch event on Wednesday 23 March between 2pm – 4pm.

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