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L8 Unseen: Tayo Aluko, Ramon ‘Sugar’ Deen, and Laurence Westgaph in the Athenaeum

Picturing a state of mind, an idea, a culture

Picturing a state of mind, an idea, a culture

There’s an engaging photography exhibition showing at the Museum of Liverpool at the moment. L8 Unseen features twenty arresting large-scale photographs of individuals and groups who have made their home in Liverpool 8, and whose work reflects its vibrant and determined culture.

“Liverpool 8 is a state of mind, an idea, a culture, rather than just a geographical location. L8 transcends postcode boundaries.” So says historian Laurence Westgaph in the introduction to the exhibition. L8 Unseen aims to reveal that state of mind through carefully-staged photographs taken by Othello De’Souza-Hartley accompanied by filmed interviews that highlight the stories and experiences of a diverse range of people from the Liverpool 8 community.

The project was the brainchild of Marc Boothe of B3 Media, and the images were captured by London photographer and artist Othello D’Souza-Hartley, who has previously exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A. In 2014, they began gathering stories and images from the people of Liverpool 8, seeking particularly to present alternatives to the more usual, stereotypical images of the area that tend to predominate in the media.

The photographs were taken in buildings which have historical significance for the people of Liverpool 8, since many of them were founded on the proceeds of the city’s international trading links and the transatlantic slave trade. Setting portraits of individuals and members of groups active in the local community in these locations encourages the viewer to reflect on the city’s history and the patterns of global trade, immigration and settlement which created the rich ethnic mix of L8 and shaped the area’s culture and identity.

So, for example, the photo of four of the area’s faith leaders – Imam Mohammed Alawi (Al Taiseer Mosque), Dr Peter Grant (Princes Road Synagogue), Father Iakovos Kasinos (St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, and Reverend Canon Bob Lewis (St Margaret of Antioch Church) – was taken in Liverpool Town Hall, one of the finest Georgian civic buildings in the country built in 1749, but with money raised by benefactors who had made fortunes through the slave trade.

Historian Laurence Westgaph again: “The people and cultures that make up the most diverse community on Merseyside have a proud history that began more than 250 years ago. The area developed in the 18th century as Liverpool’s dock capacity increased to accommodate a greater number of larger ships. Tradesmen and builders were drawn from Scotland, Wales and Ireland and settled there. The area also incorporates the south side of L1 known as ‘Sailortown’ where mainly male migrants from Africa, Asia and the Americas originally settled. Many went on to marry the daughters of their white neighbours. Some of these men and women crossed over the Parliament Street border with their families into the north west end of Toxteth during the 19th and early 20th centuries. … From there, the community continued to migrate further east and by the 1960s many of the descendants of the early L8 community were actually living in L7, in the Georgian townhouses of Falkner Street, Upper Canning and Upper Huskisson Street. Some in the community were upwardly mobile, owning family businesses and providing vital services to the multitude of seafarers who were confronted by signs in the windows of boarding houses saying ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’.”

One of the most successful – and striking – images in the exhibition presents three local men of Afro-Caribbean heritage and successful in the arts and media in the setting of the Athenaeum, the oldest private members’ club in Liverpool, in existence since 1797. The club was founded by Liverpool’s most prominent citizens, many of whom, the exhibition commentary notes, were involved in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade(but note the comment below from David Steers). The photo features Tayo Aluko (born in Nigeria, a writer, actor and singer who trained and worked as an architect in Liverpool, before he gave up architecture to travel the world performing his one-man play about Paul Robeson), Ramon ‘Sugar’ Deen (club and cabaret singer in the Merseybeat days), and Laurence Westgaph (historian who grew up on the Falkner estate in the 1980s).

Many of the individuals you encounter in these images are well-known to people who live in the area, but less so beyond. One who certainly has a wider profile is Bill Harpe, co-founder and director of the Black-E Community Arts Centre. Originally from county Durham, Bill came to Liverpool in 1961 to dance at the Empire Theatre. Falling in love with Liverpool 8, he set up home here and founded Britain’s first community arts project. The project was originally known as the Blackie – a scouse shortening of ‘The Black Church’, describing the Congregational Chapel built as the Great George Street Church in 1840 and by the 1960s darkened with a century of city smoke and grime – though now goes by the name The Black-E , more appropriate perhaps, given the proximity of the building to Britain’s oldest established African-Caribbean community – and to Europe’s oldest Chinatown – as well as the project’s commitment to cultural diversity.

The Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra is based in Liverpool and is the first and largest Chinese youth orchestra in Europe. It teaches young people how to play traditional Chinese musical instruments and offers a programme of training and performance opportunities throughout the year.

At the entrance to the exhibition a panel carries these words from Marc Boothe, Producer, B3 Media: “Liverpool 8 can be different things to different people. For some it is an idea, a culture, rather than simply a geographical location. L8 transcends postcode boundaries. Yet L8 is also a definite space. Generations of families have come, lived and forged their own identities here. At times their stories have taken in riots and rebellion as well as the everyday human journey of births and deaths, loves and struggles and making a hard living. Memories and stories merge, where do they begin and end? They might arise in China, Somalia or Poland but they continue here and enrich the lives of those in L8, in Britain and in other parts of the world. But L8 it is not a place where separate communities live separate lives. It is these stories of shared experiences that capture the real spirit and heritage of the area from the past and the present, for the future.”

Three women with a strong sense of pride, political awareness and community activism are pictured in 19 Abercromby Square, an elegant town house, now part of the University of Liverpool. The house was built in the 1860s for the affluent businessman Charles Kuhn Prioleau from South Carolina who supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and helped finance the construction of the Alabama, built in secret at John Lairds shipyard, Birkenhead before serving the Southern cause by attacking Union merchant and naval ships. Sheila Coleman hails from from a large Liverpool-Irish family, and calls herself ‘scouse, not English’. She’s a well-known activist and campaigner, particularly as spokesperson for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. She currently works as the North West region community coordinator for the trade union Unite. Donna Kassim is Regional Officer for Unite, while Sonia Bassey, following a successful career as a community artist and director of her own business, now works in local government, responsible for family services.

The Tiber Young People’s Steering Group consists of young people from the Lodge Lane area who are fully involved in planning and decision-making for a major project to build a public square on the Tiber Street site (chosen by the retail guru Mary Portas to be part of her UK-wide campaign to ‘save the high street’). There’s an interesting clip on Vimeo in which Tiber Youth Facilitator Stephen Nze talks about the project and his work.

“So what is the culture of L8? Maybe it is the culture of accepting, tolerating and welcoming people from other cultures. This can be demonstrated in the most obvious and meaningful way, through ‘interracial’ marriage and relationships. It is not a neighbourhood where separate communities live separate lives within a multi-cultural area, similar to what can be seen in many other towns and cities in Britain. L8 is a community where people from all parts of the globe have intermingled genetically and otherwise, for generations.”
– Laurence Westgaph, Historian – L8


L8 Unseen is a multimedia exhibition – visitors are offered a number of ways to access the content, including a smartphone app that will play extracts from the oral history interviews as visitors walk around the display. In a separate space there is a continuous screening of the oral histories, complemented by archive photography and stories from the Liverpool 8 Old Photos Facebook group, while visitors are encouraged to add their own L8 tales via a video booth.

The exhibition is part of Look 15, the Liverpool International Photography Festival, which continues throughout May. This year’s theme, Exchange, explores three key topics and the interactions between them: Migration, Women and Photography, and Memory.

– Written by Gerry Cordon.

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