Text by Rebecca Travis
The Homelands Project, commissioned by Side Gallery, was instigated to respond to the cultural shift in North East communities following an influx in immigration over the last decade. The recipients of Homelands bursaries, Ciara Leeming and Paul Alexander Knox utilise photography as a tool to document these burgeoning communities, and the resultant works of their lens-based observations now form part of region-wide festival The Social: Encountering Photography. Shown simultaneously, both bodies of work intertwine to reveal stories of the diverse threads that make up our contemporary towns and cities.
The first study we encounter is that of Ciara Leeming, who has so far spent 18 months alongside a Czech Roma family as they make the transition to a permanent residence in Middlesbrough. Leeming views her investigative practice not as a solo venture, but that of collaboration between herself and the subjects of her photography, building a relationship grounded in reciprocal trust. The result of this bond is a sense of ease evident throughout the images, which portray intimate scenes of domestic life, and celebratory occasions.
As in a journalistic article, the photographic works are punctuated with text panels recounting the family’s immigration experiences – from their ostracised existence as a minority community in post-communist Czech Republic, to their feeling of acceptance as Teesside residents. These autobiographical accounts aid in a much greater understanding not only of the specific experiences of the family, but of the wider prejudices facing Roma communities within the rapidly changing political climates of former communist states.
Within this contextual framework, the relative normality of the situations depicted in Leeming’s photography is endowed with a much greater importance. As tiny moments of settled existence are captured, a sense of hope in new beginnings manifests.
Whereas the Roma are a more recent and less overtly visible presence within the region, Sunderland’s Bangladeshi community as documented by Knox is by comparison more established. Knox’s work encompasses a multi-generational cross section of the community, from the first generation who faced racial tension when they arrived in the 1970s, to today’s young people who have a strong identity and connection with both cultures.
The whole series is shot in black and white, a device that lends a sense of timelessness and equality. With all images on the same tonal spectrum, individual personality supersedes a one-dimensional view of ethnicity.
Some of the most successful images highlight the unlikely pairings in what can appear to be two incongruous cultures – terraced houses converted to mosques or fast food chefs cooking up local food for customers whilst they themselves fast for Ramadan.
They draw attention to a lesser-documented, successful display of cultures that endeavour to work side by side as opposed to drawing out disparities.
Tensions inevitably still manifest, and these are shown via uncomfortable images of right-wing political protests, the most affecting of these featuring young people. In one a group poses with discarded National Front signs – whether the image appears to display an innocent want for attention as opposed to a political awareness is unclear, but it still makes for a shocking scene, a worrying example of how strong political messages can infiltrate a young mindset.
Side Gallery have built a great reputation for socio-political lens-based studies, a somewhat ‘old school’ style of photography, as a tool by which to reflect and instigate contemplation, and this thought-provoking set of exhibitions is no exception. Homelands can be seen not only as a region-centric project, but one that typifies a contemporary multi-cultural Britain, where diverse traditions and cultures come to settle, but an overriding human need to feel at home is present throughout.
HOMELANDS is on display at Side Gallery, Newcastle until 21 December 2013.
Rebecca Travis is an artist, curator and writer based in Newcastle.
Image: Ciara Leeming – Eighteen year old Jiri ‘Small-Jiri’ has trained to be a motor mechanic, something his mother believes would have been difficult for a Roma boy in their small town near Prague.