Cover To Keep

By Fleur Chattillon

Every day we click our phones to capture something that we feel in the moment means something, but unlike life before smartphones, we don’t need to go through the process of getting films turned into prints. Before even the camera, artists had to go places to paint something that needed to be covered. Photography changed that and allowed us to capture beautiful things or maybe not-so-nice things for us to have a memory of it. Even recording history has become a tool we don’t really think twice about anymore as it’s so easy, but it still holds an important role in life, to record to remind and refresh stories so we don’t lose the simple life truths that help us move forward daily. Find out more here in Cover To Keep.

The image on the left, Usher Rd Bow, Tower Hamlets, 1976 © Photographer Tom Learmonth

Photography is a way to capture parts of the world we don’t live in, experiences we don’t live every day and practices we don’t engage with, giving us a greater view of the world a bit further from our own town.

Being part of a war, homelessness and poverty are things everybody in the world is aware of but not everybody comes across in their daily lives. Also being part of a specific culture or religion and expressing this. Yet without images, it is easy to forget history and maybe some of the ugliness that has gone before.

Now this new exhibition in London reveals the East End’s history of poor housing and homelessness.

Jack London Collection, People of the Abyss, 1902. © Huntington Library, San Marino, California

London’s east End has for hundreds of years been an area known for large-scale poverty. Often the place incoming communities to the UK first settled and therefore traditionally a working-class area with high levels of poverty.  

Another major theme of East End history has been migration, both inward and outward. The area had a strong pull on the rural poor from other parts of England and attracted waves of migration from further afield, notably Huguenot refugees, Irish weavers, Ashkenazi Jews and in the 20th century Bengalis.

Edith Tudor-Hart, Stepney family, 1932 © The Estate of W. Suschitzky

Opening at Four Corners Gallery this month, ‘Conditions of Living: Home and Homelessness in London’s East End’ takes a visual journey from workhouses to slums, damp tower blocks to homeless shelters, exploring how photographers have represented these conditions for over a century. The whole exhibition really takes you on a travel through time in the East Ends area.

Bert Hardy, Bombed East End, 1940 © Bert Hardy, Picture Post, Getty Images_LR

It sheds light on little-known histories: the tenants’ rent strikes of the 1930s, post-war squatting, and ‘bonfire corner’, a meeting place for homeless people at Spitalfields Market for more than twenty years. It shows raw and honest images of the living conditions and life of the homeless people there.

David Granick, Spitalfields Market 1973. Photo restoration by Chris Dorley-Brown © Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

This highly relevant exhibition is asking several questions to its viewers about the economic situation with housing in London and it addresses several other political issues with the situation of homelessness in general. It draws shocking comparisons with today’s housing precarity, high rents and homelessness.

Tom Learmonth, Mrs Baldwin, Mansford Street Estate, Bethnal Green, 1978 © Tom Learmonth

Among other photographers, it features new work by Anthony Luvera, an Australian artist, writer and educator, based in London. He has a twenty-year-long career dedicated to working collaboratively with people who have experienced homelessness and addressing issues of housing precarity and housing justice. His work has been exhibited widely in galleries, public spaces, and festivals.

Assisted Self-Portrait of Ruben Torosyan, 2004 © Photographer Anthony Luvera

There are many other photographers on display, showing the living conditions and life of the homeless people in the East End area through the years.

The exhibition is accompanied by a series of talks and screenings that will discuss the work in the context of housing campaigns for social justice and political change.

While this exhibition focuses on covering homelessness and building projects, portraying it to the world, this other photography exhibition portrays a very specific culture and religion that focuses on long-term photography projects and series that address the complex realities of human labour and environmental conditions.

Untitled, 2022, Photographer Mário Macilau, Archival pigment print on cotton rag paper 60 x 90 cm, Copyright Mário Macilau, courtesy Ed Cross gallery

Ed Cross is pleased to present ‘On Faith’, a solo show of work by award-winning photographer Mário Macilau (b. 1984, Maputo, Mozambique) at the Garrett Street gallery. Now, on display in London for the first time.

Showing photographs from Macilau’s ongoing ‘Faith series’ as a discrete body of work, the images document the practice of animism (the belief that everything has a soul or spirit) within traditional religions in contemporary Mozambique. Featuring isolated communities increasingly imperilled by climate change, the work’s documentary as well as its aesthetic function is more important than ever.

A group of people lying down, 2022, Photographer Archival pigment print on cotton rag 33.3 x 50 cm, Copyright Mário Macilau, courtesy Ed Cross gallery

From the sacrifices of animals, like goats and chickens, to rituals performed before the birth of a child, from priests possessed by spirits to dolls entrusted as intermediaries between humans and the natural world, Macilau’s camera bears witness to systems of belief that reflect his viewer’s personal universe back at her from unfamiliar and unique angles.

Animism and Christianity in the same ritual, 2015, Photographer Mário Macilau, Copyright Mário Macilau, courtesy Ed Cross gallery

Many of Macilau’s photos were made in outdoor spaces used by animist worshippers, notably on Mozambique’s abundant coastline. Place matters in thinking about art, no matter how circumspect the photo might be about its place of origin or the circumstances of its creation.

Sacrificing, 2015, Photographer Mário Macilau, Archival pigment print on cotton rag 33.3 x 50 cm, Copyright Mário Macilau, courtesy Ed Cross gallery

Both these exhibitions have such emotive and expressing photographs even though the majority is in black and white, the images are as strong and powerful as can be.

The importance of covering the things in life, like homeless people or this ancient religion and culture, is showing people what is out there in the world. It gives a new perspective on life and captures the raw existence of human beings. It’s to keep the memory and history alive.

For more information about the exhibition ‘Conditions of Living: Home and Homelessness in London’s East End, featured at the Four Corners gallery from the 30th of June until the 2nd of September 2023, go here

For more information about the exhibition ‘On Faith’ by award-winning photographer Mário Macilau, featured at the Garrett Street gallery from the 15th of June until the 5th of August 2023. go here

If you enjoyed reading Cover To Keep why not try Hard with a Soft Heart?

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