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Black History Month: Images of strength and beauty

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By Rebecca Thomas
Arts and entertainment reporter

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  • Black History Month

image copyrightJulio Etchart

image captionJulio Etchart reminds us of the joy of the Notting Hill Carnival, which was cancelled this year due to the pandemic

An eclectic collection of images of black people from all sectors of British life have been selected for an exhibition marking the importance of Black History Month in Britain this October.

The online show features 50 striking pictures on a wide range of themes with portraits, demonstrations, women at work, carnival, musicians, dancers and more featured.

More than 100 images were submitted to the show’s organisers Alternative Arts, working with Tower Hamlets Council in East London, from established and emerging artists.

The final selection aims to comment on black lives past and present and the issues that confront them.

And while Black History Month is a long-running annual event, this year it has become even more relevant and important with the the Black Lives Matter movement having been thrust back into the wider daily conversation, following the death of George Floyd in the US.

Commenting on the significance of Black History Month 2020, Catherine Ross, editor of the BHM website, said it was “a time to look forward and celebrate the here and now – and the future possibilities”.

“In years gone by, October has been the only time of year when the UK talks about the achievements of black people in Britain.

“Hopefully, the events of 2020 will be a catalyst for black history to be shared much more widely – in museums, galleries, schools, universities, public spaces and communities.”

Here we have selected some of the photos from the exhibition.

Dina Asher-Smith by Frederic Aranda

image copyrightFrederic Aranda

Frederic Aranda is a self-taught photographer specialising in portraiture. He’s shot a multitude of famous and influential people, including Margaret Thatcher, Prince Philip, Sir Ian McKellan, Rosamund Pike and Pharrell Williams.

His portraiture, for which he also takes group shots, aims to communicate the subject’s humanity and strength, expressing as much as possible about a person in one, singular image. It’s earned him a place as a favourite photographer for top brand style magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar.

This picture of the British Olympic medal-winning sprinter Dina Asher-Smith sees her in a glorious Oscar de la Renta dress. It was one of several pictures he took of the athlete for Harrods magazine, which called her a “hero for the 21st Century”. The picture is set up to show her physical ability and how her sights are firmly set on her sporting goals.

Three Sisters by Hussina Raja

image copyrightHussina Raja

Hussina Raja is a British Kashmiri artist, actress and director working across film, photography and performance.

Her work explores social-political issues surrounding notions of identity, heritage, belonging and culture. Her debut short film Roots, about a young couple’s struggle for acceptance, premiered at the BFI London Film Festival in 2019 and screened at the 66th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen.

In her photo Three Sisters, Raja portrays the young, up-and-coming actresses Joyce Omotola, Akuc Bol and Bel Adawa while they were in the cast of The Last King of Scotland at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

Raise Your Fist by Felix Schmilinsky

image copyrightFelix Schmilinsky

Felix Schmilinsky is a German British photographer and cinematographer based in London. He shoots commercials and documentaries, including Chasing Perfect about the life of car designer Frank Stephenson, which came out on Netflix in 2019.

As a photographer, Schmilinsky specialises in impromptu images of everyday scenes, which although seemingly uncomplicated, draw the viewer in and invite him or her to create their own narrative behind the image.

This powerful picture was taken in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests in London earlier this year. Schmilinsky says simply: “A car stopped in the midst of the crowds gathering in front of the US Embassy. She got out, stepped up and raised her fist quietly.”

Slave Ship by Shaïny Vilo

image copyrightShaïny Vilo

Shaïny Vilo is a French, UK-based photographer, artist and musician. Of his most recent project Afro + Punk, Vilo says it’s “an autobiographical project depicting a journey through the exploration of black identities in the alternative community and the struggles and complexities faced whilst in the middle”.

Slave Ship is one of 17 images from the project. Vilo says it was inspired by the Basquiat painting of the same name, which focused on showing the trade route of slaves.

Rwanda Esther by Jenny Matthews

image copyrightJenny Matthews

Jenny Matthews has spent more than 30 years as a photographer focusing in particular on depicting conflict and social issues for British newspapers, magazines and development organisations.

Matthews has covered momentous historical events including the guerrilla war and independence of Eritrea, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the genocide in Rwanda. She’s also produced award-winning books, including Children Growing Up with War and Women and War.

Some of her photo projects involve making patchworks with the images stitched into the fabric. This evocative photo is of Esther, a genocide survivor from Rwanda, from one of these works.

Electrician Loretta Lietch by Sarah Ainslie

image copyrightSarah Ainslie

Photographer Sarah Ainslie’s work combines both personal projects and those commissioned by others. In particular, she’s worked extensively with theatre companies, including the RSC, Almeida and The Royal Court.

On a personal level, Ainslie is inspired by her home turf of London’s Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Islington areas and the lives of the people living there. Her work has depicted Arsenal football supporters, Smithfield Market, Spitalfields, Shoreditch at night and strip pubs in the East End.

This picture of Loretta Lietch, an electrician in East London, is from a series of Ainslie’s black and white photos of local women at work, which was commissioned by Hackney Museum.

Laurence by Ade “Àsìkò” Okelarin

image copyrightAde “Àsìkò” Okelarin

Conceptual photographer and artist Ade “Àsìkò” Okelarin was born in London, then spent his early years in Lagos, Nigeria before returning to London. His work explores identity, culture and heritage and he’s worked for the fashion and music industry.

His work has been shown at London’s South Bank Centre, The Gallery of African Art in London and the Rele Gallery in Nigeria.

This striking photo is from a series of images of black women to highlight how they feel in their skin, exploring issues such as racial prejudice, identity and spirituality.

The subject of this photo, Laurence, explains how she came to love body art.

“My skin markings and tattoos are an illustration of my spiritual growth and an appreciation of my ancestry.

“Most of the time I am very comfortable in my skin but I must admit it is something I had to learn how to do. Being in a black/west African woman’s body and not being celebrated/represented wasn’t easy.

“I had to learn how to love my body. The more I understood myself the easier it became.”

Solace by David Cantor

image copyrightDavid Cantor

David Cantor is a photographer who says “street portraiture is my passion”.

“This wonderful genre comes with endless opportunities to interact with people from all walks of life, ethnicity and backgrounds,” he continues.

A number of his images have been selected for special recognition, including his portrait Abdel Tavares, which was was one of the photographs chosen to be exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize.

This heart-warming image was taken on a warm summer’s day in a community garden in London.

London Lockdown by Tom Ferrie

image copyrightTom Ferrie

Tom Ferrie is a photographer based in London. He has travelled extensively around South East Asia, India, Europe, Central America and Africa.

This image of a lady shopping was taken in Turnpike Lane, in the London borough of Haringey in June 2020 in the week that the shops reopened during lockdown.

The London boroughs hit worse by the pandemic all had large BAME communities. This includes Brent, Haringey, Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

The image is from a series of Ferrie’s photographs taken at the height of the pandemic.

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