One-time winner of BJP's International Award for the “ecstatic, expressive worship” she found in African churches across London, her series Sunday Service is now on display at Tate Modern
The churches, Chloe Dewe Mathews says, are “unlikely, reinvented spaces”. Spread across South London, former factories, office blocks, warehouses and bingo halls have become private, vibrant places for people to gather together, cry, shout, convulse, laugh and sing.
Chloe Dewe Mathews’ photographs, now on exhibition in the Tate Modern’s McAuley Gallery, explore “a change in usage”. Like the Tate Modern, what was once an elephant’s graveyard of industry has been repurposed, organically, into monuments of “ecstatic, expressive worship”.
There are over 240 black majority churches in the poorer stretch of Britain’s capital city – the greatest concentration of African Christianity anywhere beyond Africa.
“Here, the Holy Spirit pervades, faith is intrinsic and God is personally experienced,” writes Synthia Griffin, a curator of regeneration and partnerships at Tate Modern. “These churches feature none of the monumental architecture or symbols of status and power of the historically dominant denominations. Frequently temporary, they are anonymous but very visible to the communities they serve.”
Dewe Mathews, who won British Journal of Photography’s International Award in 2011, has spent each Sunday for the last three months photographing such churches. “You never quite know what you might find,” Dewe Mathews says. “But they’re always intimate, with the sense of people really experiencing something.”
A Tate exhibition is the next step in an already impressive career for Dewe Mathews. After art school, she spent four years working in the art department of feature film productions, including Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering. The experience, while enjoyable, didn’t sate her creatively, and she started assisting photographers while in her spare time photographing banger races – clapped out cars driven to death and covered in graffiti – in and around the the coastal town of Eastbourne. Soon after, she took her camera to the isolated Welsh town of Aberystwyth, a favourite holiday spot for Hasidic Jewish families.
Then she left the UK for a hiatus, hitchhiking and camping across China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan with her boyfriend. The journey gave birth to Caspian, a photo story about the world’s largest inland sea, “languishing quietly between two great continents, where Asia begins to dissolve into Europe”.
“Long hours were spent staring down dusty roads waiting for a ride,” she wrote of her journey. “And each day the layer of dust on my skin was washed away by a different stream.
“The work I created responds to both the people and the land, because they are bound up with one another. And every ecological scar left on the land, by powers of the past, is a wound to the people.”
Dewe Mathews now lives in Peckham, just down from the road from churches like Holy Ghost Zone, Freedom Centre International, the Christ High Commission and Faith Ministries International. She talks of the “outpouring” that she witnessed in such churches, “almost like a split personality”, of “the playing out of ritual”, the way cultures combine and meld to create something new.
She was raised in leafy, affluent Barnes on the southwestern bank of the Thames. On Sundays, her family attended the local church. “My abiding memories,” she says, “are the smell of incense, uncomfortable pews and the sad sight of a 15-person congregation grinding through hymns without an organ.”
A contrast, then, to what she found a few miles down the road in Southwark. “I hadn’t anticipated what a group of 200 people gathered together in a state of communal trance would feel like,” she writes.
“The pastor walked through the congregation as he preached, delivering the Holy Spirit in focused doses. Some fell to the floor instantly and then lay trembling.”
But the church, she says, is not just about transcendence, but the here and now: “It became clear that the role of the pastor as motivational leader can be as important as their role as spiritual guide; building people’s individual confidence in dealing with the difficulties of daily life.”
“These images help to capture the role faith can play in many people’s lives and what a powerful and expressive experience the practice of worshipping can be,” writes Griffin. “In a changing modern city that is intensely religious, markedly secular and extraordinarily diverse, this project aimed to capture a specific element of church life at this point in time, and the unexpected buildings they inhabit.”
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