Sound installation exploring Black culture in Britain to open in Handsworth Park.
Celebrated British Jamaican photographer and artist Vanley Burke launches his first outdoor sound installation, Reactivating sounds of Blackness, in Handsworth Park, Birmingham, on Sunday 2nd April.
Working with artist Gary Stewart and community interest company, Museum X, Reactivating sounds of Blackness takes 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 explores 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 includes 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. Reactivating sounds of Blackness is presented as part of Meeting Point, a year-long, artist-led research project with leading contemporary arts agency, Arts&Heritage (artsandheritage.org.uk), to explore how artists can expand our understanding of intangible heritage.
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 explores the continuing change within Black culture, and draws on interviews and conversations with individuals and communities in Birmingham. They include 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 sings traditional Jamaican songs and poems; and a mother and daughter who share stories of childhood.
Burke continued: “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.”
A mixture of physical and recorded sound pieces will be installed at the bandstand, The Sunken Garden, and in the trees 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 are 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 is 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.
Steph Allen, Executive Director at Arts&Heritage said: “Our current Meeting Point programme is working beyond the walls of traditional museums to explore how organisations have influenced our wider cultural heritage. Vanley’s unique documentation of Black lives in Britain and Museum X’s exploration of Pan-Africanism and its significance to Black Britain is making visible a more diverse and complex national story.”
Reactivating sounds of Blackness opens in Handsworth Park, Birmingham, on Sunday 2nd April and will run until summer 2023 (exact date TBC).
The outdoor sound installation is free to attend and will be available for people to experience during Handsworth Park’s regular opening hours. The trail is self-guided and can be experienced in any order, but visitors may want to start at the bandstand.
To find out more about Reactivating sounds of Blackness, visit themuseumx.com. The Arts&Heritage Meeting Point programme runs throughout 2023. For more information visit artsandheritage.org.uk to sign up to the Arts&Heritage newsletter.