This Black History Month, Holly-Marie Cato celebrates the role of the church in Caribbean culture

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© Holly-Marie Cato.

As part of Leica Gallery’s Black History Month celebrations, the photographer presents her first solo exhibition, alongside a programme of talks, workshops and grants for young Black photographers

Between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, thousands of men, women and children left the Caribbean. Encouraged by the British Nationality Act, which granted citizenship to all from the British Empire, these members – of what we now know as the Windrush generation – set out for ‘the motherland’. Alongside their luggage and the hope of a warm welcome, many carried with them a strong Christian faith.

“But then, when they got here, they found that they weren’t welcome, that they weren’t allowed to worship within English and white spaces,” explains Holly-Marie Cato. “That’s why today you have these Caribbean churches, these beautiful pockets of culture.”

Now on display at Leica Gallery, London, Cato’s latest body of work, Heavy is the Mantel, documents these pockets of culture which, amid racism and descrimination, provided respite for the Windrush generation. Now, several generations on, they continue to play a key role in Caribbean communities. The exhibition is part of Leica’s Black History Month celebrations, which also include a programme of talks curated by Cato, alongside workshops, portfolio reviews, and grants for young Black photographers.

© Holly-Marie Cato.

In deciding which body of work to exhibit during Black History Month, Cato reflected on the stories we often hear during this time – those of the Civil Rights Movement and of Martin Luther King – moments which are of course important, but which, she says, can sometimes feel distant. Instead, she wanted to explore what is happening now. “Black people are making history every day,” Cato says. “This church has been the pinnacle of their community every day.”

Cato’s own fondness for the church is clear. She grew up around its traditions, wearing Sunday best and singing from ageing hymn books. The images themselves are testament to this. Striking portraits taken at the pulpit accompany atmospheric images of the Bible and joyous, euphoric depictions of the congregation at prayer. However, the photographer’s passion goes beyond the work itself, stretching without falter to embrace her curation of Leica Gallery’s wider Black HIstory Month programme. 

“I’m doing an exhibition in a space that is amazing and it’s in a very high value area,” Cato explains. “Sometimes you find that there’s an intimidation to walk into those spaces.” To combat this barrier, Cato set about curating a programme designed to engage with more diverse audiences – talks by prominent Black photographers including Simon Frederick and Charlie Phillips, a grant application process created with accessibility in mind and access to high-quality equipment. Her goal? To equip people from a range of communities to tell their own, often profound stories, with the nuance they deserve.

“Within Hollywood, we can see white people as Sherlock Holmes, as sci-fi villains, as in love and as anything else,” the photographer says. “I want to see such an amazing and varied spectrum of Black lives. So, I think we have to keep equipping Black people with the tools to tell their own story, because that’s the only way we will actually get an understanding.”

© Holly-Marie Cato.

Heavy is the Mantle is on display at Leica Gallery now until 01 November 2022. Leica Gallery’s Black History Month programme, curated by Holly-Marie Cato, runs throughout October 2022.