Intimate Documentation

“At the turn of the twentieth century, young Black women were in open rebellion.” So begins Saidiya Hartman’s award-winning book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals (2019). “They struggled to create autonomous and beautiful lives, to escape the new forms of servitude awaiting them, and to live as if they were free.” Across 400 pages, this visionary title navigates the rich inner worlds of individual Black women in New York and Philadelphia in the early 1900s – the first generations to be born after emancipation. Archival photographs and materials were integral to Hartman’s writing process; the author used them as way to narrate personal histories both accurately and creatively. Now, Hartman’s title lends its name to London Art Fair’s annual contemporary photography exhibition: Photo50: Beautiful Experiments, running 18 – 22 January 2023.

In Wayward Lives, Hartman conjures, in exquisite detail, the intimate moments, dilemmas and emotions faced by her “cast of characters.” In a similar way, London Art Fair’s Beautiful Experiments visualises the deeply personal experiences of multigenerational women and non-binary photographers working from the 1980s to today. It takes the idea of ‘home’ as a jumping-off point, with each artist engaging with Black and diasporic heritage through a unique lens. Domestic spaces and interiors recur as a theme: home is positioned as “a safe space, a queer space, an invisible space, a space of isolation and a place of memory.”

Joy Gregory’s (b. 1959) shot of a glass butter dish, for example, is shown above. It’s a simple yet striking still life, positioning the glittering everyday object against a rich maroon backdrop. Taken from the series I’m Home (2018), the image reflects on the meaning of ‘home’ to migrant communities and those who arrived in the UK at the end of the 1950s. Elsewhere, Italian Nigerian image-maker Adaeze Ihebom (b. 1990) invites viewers to share personal space: the “artist’s room” in her self-portrait is replete with post-it notes and sketches. There’s also work by multi-disciplinary artist Bernice Mulenga, whose analogue #friendsonfilm documents their life and community. “It predominantly shows Black people in candid, happy moments.”

The full roster of contributors includes Jerwood/Photoworks Award-winner Heather Agyepong, Adama Jalloh, Marcia Michael, Eileen Perrier, Rubee Samuel, Marlene Smith, Maxine Walker and Sofia Yala. “Some of these voices have not been heard and we feel that they deserve a platform,” say curators Pelumi Odubanjo and Katy Barron, who will participate London Art Fair’s Photography Focus Day (20 January), a day of talks and tours dedicated to the medium. “The exhibition was an opportunity for them to experiment with their ideas without constraints. The beauty in these works is both visual but also emotional.”

London Art Fair / Photo50: Beautiful Experiments runs from 18-22 January.

Image Credits:
1. Butterdish, Joy Gregory (from I’m Home), 2018.
2. Adaeze Ihebom, The Artist’s Room, 2022 © Adaeze Ihebom
3. Portrait by Bernice Mulenga, 2022.