Internationally renowned photographer Vanley Burke has launched a brand new photography exhibition celebrating working class and migrant communities in Birmingham.

The Ikon Gallery is showcasing a series of portraits documenting individuals from migrant communities in the city as part of a project led by the University of Birmingham. ‘A Gift to Birmingham’ is a free exhibition which opened to the public on Wednesday (23 March), with Vanley Burke attending the launch alongside some of the residents he photographed in recent months.

The exhibition features 17 portraits of members of Migrant Voice, a migrant-led national organisation with a regional West Midlands hub. 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.

Vanley said: “For me, I think it’s engagement with the people that I’ve been working with. I’m always very intrigued to meet new people and likewise with this project, different personalities as well and what they’ve brought to the whole migrant stories, I found that quite exciting as well.

“It’s an introduction of the people to the wider society and by that I don’t mean necessarily just the indigenous English community, I’m talking about all society. “Speaking from a migrant position, I think it is far too easy for some of us who have gone through that process to forget that process and I think this is about talking to everyone; and I think it’s just by way of an introduction into and I think whoever the viewer is can take as much or as little they want from it.

“But I think additional to that as well is the fact it’s going to be used in educational settings and I think that’s where it will have much more benefit in engaging younger people in the process.”

Ikon has, in collaboration with the 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.

Nazek Ramadan, Director of Migrant Voice, said:

“We know how important it is for us to tell our own stories and this is why we set up to speak for ourselves, but also photos are a brilliant tool to tell a story so it really enables us, gave us us the opportunity to tell more of our stories. For those of us living in Birmingham this is our city, our home.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to see the portraits at the Ikon Gallery, the public can come and see them so we can start this conversation. We can engage with some members of the public who we don’t usually engage with, in a very safe space and safe way; and we can tell our stories beautifully without saying a word because photos are so powerful at telling our stories.”

The showcase at Ikon, and the schools’ packs, also include a film (below) 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. After its run at the Ikon Gallery, the exhibition will tour community empowerment hub Saathi House in Aston to mark the gallery’s Migrant Festival in June.

‘A Gift to Birmingham’ by Vanley Burke is on display at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham between 23 March – 3 April 2022.

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