A new exhibition, created by charity English Heritage and Photoworks, examines heritage and history through the eyes of four young photographers
What is heritage? The memories we keep, and the stories we tell, reflect our story, both past and present. Some sides to this story have gone unheard for too long. “There is no such thing as an independent, singular narrative,” Photoworks’ Julia Bunnemann explains. Working with photography platform Photoworks and the charity English Heritage, Bunnemann explores these themes in England’s New Lenses – a new exhibition showcasing four young photographers: Kemka Ajoku, Abena Appiah, Megan Mechelle Dalton, and Mia Parker Tang. The project is part of Shout Out Loud, English Heritage’s new youth engagement initiative, which aims to engage younger audiences with history and heritage.
England’s New Lenses demonstrates the diversity and possibility of what English heritage means today. “The linear history we think we know is made of omissions, because the assessment of what’s ‘important’ hasn’t been done on a democratic basis,” says Bunnemann. Each artist was paired with an English Heritage site, complicating its preconceived history and creating new historical explorations. “The task was in filling these historic gaps, to listen to groups that have not had the chance to raise their voices,” Bunnemann says. “Photography not only reconstructs this history, but retells it. It feels more crucial than ever.”
Through the process, each artist was mentored by an established British photographer. Megan Mechelle Dalton was mentored by Alejandra Carles-Tolra; Abena Appiah was paired with Alberta Whittle and Silvia Rosi; Mia Parker Tang with Alys Tomlinson; and Kemka Ajoku with Ingrid Pollard and Mahtab Hussain.
The exhibition is currently on show in the English Heritage site of Wrest park, Bedfordshire. “We wanted the exhibition to fit into this setting,” Bunnemann explains. Installed between 18th century palatial buildings and gardens, the aim of the exhibition are clear: it is a celebration of English history, one which incorporates both traditional and contemporary perspectives.
Below, we introduce the four young artists and their projects.
“Heritage to me is the making of someone or something, the events from the past that have shaped and influenced who you are today,” Ajoku explains. “As a Black British citizen, my heritage stems from my parents’ and their own parents’ history, which has ties to both the UK and Nigeria.”
In Finding Common Ground, Ajoku focuses on three generations of Black British Youth. Following the events of the last year, Ajoku wanted to make new work which highlighted the history of the migration of Black people from West Africa and the Caribbean following the Second World War. The Windrush generation has paved the path for the contemporary society we live in, yet often goes unseen in modern English history. By styling the models in Black-owned clothing lines, the message of Ajoku’s work, against the backdrop of Wrest Park, is clear: this is English Heritage.
Ajoku was mentored by Ingrid Pollard and Mahtab Hussain. “They gave me a deeper insight into the art, and supplied me with great artists to research and learn from. I was discovering things that I wouldn’t have been taught growing up in school, due to the suppression of Black British history in the education system. Through this research I learnt more about myself and my people, and gained a greater knowledge of what heritage truly means.”
In Appiah’s project, the 23-year-old blurs the geographic histories of ancient England and North Africa. “I discovered the story of African Roman soldiers, and how many remained here in England after their service in the army,” she explains. Similar to Ajoku, Appiah is concerned with often overlooked Black British history. In the case of Appiah, this history spans two millenniums.
“There are more stories that could be told about Africa, and they don’t just come from recent history,” she says. “Some of the African Romans may have felt the same way living here in England as I do; where England becomes home, but you also have a connection to another culture. This idea resonated with me and made their story feel very personal.”
Home, common ground, and a sharing of landscapes are centred in the series. The work exists in a limbo between historical and physical space, imagining the ancient Roman monument of Hadrian’s wall circumnavigating the African landscape instead. With portrait and landscape, Appiah brings the Roman soldiers home, situating them in both their native and adopted lands. “I wanted to see England through their eyes, using my own memories,” she says.
Dalton’s project looks back at the Wars of the roses, a series of English civil wars in the 15th century. The social, economic, and cultural legacies of the war can still be felt throughout English history and customs, especially in northern counties such as Yorkshire and Lancashire. The backdrop and subject of Dalton’s work is Middleham Castle, which was home to Richard Neville, a leading figure in the Wars of the Roses.
“I’m interested in regional identity, especially my northern heritage,” explains the 22-year-old photographer. As the country has become increasingly divided, I found comfort and pride in learning about this history more.”
Creating the project during the 550th anniversary of the 30-year war, Dalton focused on comparisons between the war’s history and present day. Social-economic breakdowns, a lack of leadership, and a political polarisation can be seen in both contemporary society and the England of half a millennium ago. “I wanted to spotlight the often-untold narrative of the War of the Roses; the fight of loneliness, power, wealth disparity, and domestic life that women predominantly bore the brunt of as they supported the travelling towns of armies,” Dalton says.
For Parker-Tang, the historical site of Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, and its surroundings, became her subject. “The series began as an idea about time,” the British-Chinese photographer explains. “Time can be folded on itself, so two different parts that were previously far apart, meet. I wanted to explore time, make it something to be engaged with rather than something that you watch pass by. I wanted to participate in all of the different states.”
In There Lies The World, Parker-Tang takes a philosophical approach to the creative brief. The liminal space of a historical site is her concern, as these spaces exist as both a vessel for national memory, and a time long gone. Her images bridge the gap between past and present, as the cyclicality of time, geography, and human ritual is examined. The castle and its landscape is “a moment in progress; slowed for an image, but never stopped entirely”.
England’s New Lenses is currently on show at Wrest Park until 22 October 2021. Films exploring each artist’s work can be found here.
Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.