Agenda, Events, Exhibitions, Festivals

Brighton Photo Biennial 2016: Review

Tony from Reimagine, Brighton 2016 © Bharat Sikka. A Photoworks / FOCUS Festival Mumbai co-commission in partnership with the University of Brighton

Now in its seventh edition, Brighton Photo Biennial celebrates the city’s progressive spirit in Beyond the Bias - Reshaping Image.

Brighton is a city synonymous with celebrating difference, championing diversity and challenging stereotypes.

As the unofficial capital of the LGBQ+ community and home of the largest pride event in the UK, there is no better place to stage the themes explored in this year’s Brighton Photo Biennial.

Curated and produced by Photoworks, Beyond the Bias – Reshaping Image addresses how photography can inform and reflect socio-political issues.

Identity and self-representation are questioned in relation to the wider context of mass-representation – where self-image and attitude are often co-opted – investigating
photography’s function in the political of the body, gender, sexuality and subversion of cultural norms.

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Sally Vate from Reimagine, Brighton 2016 © Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos. A Photoworks / FOCUS Festival Mumbai co-commission in partnership with the University of Brighton

Including work from documentary photographers and photographic approaches that knowingly reference the language of fashion and style photography, the biennial unpicks understandings our personal and projected image.

At the core of the festival are three major exhibition projects, one a European premiere from the USA, the others being two new commissions; one centered on British Youth Style, the other documenting the multicultural experiences of identity in India and the UK.

Reimagine traces the concepts of shame, intimacy and fantasy in broader relation to the private and public presentation of self-image.

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Onyx from Reimagine, Brighton 2016 © Bharat Sikka. A Photoworks / FOCUS Festival Mumbai co-commission in partnership with the University of Brighton

Commissioned to work together for the first time on the documentary project, photographers Olivia Arthur and Bharat Sikka worked closely with communities who identify as being LGBQ+ in both Mumbai and Brighton – cities with sharply contrasting politics, particularly in relation to gender and sexuality.

“As curators we felt there was a connectivity and concern between both photographers says director of Photoworks, Celia Davies. “We were excited by the fact that they both show a prolonged and devoted attention to communities they had been working with.”

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Laura from Reimagine, Brighton 2016 © Bharat Sikka. A Photoworks / FOCUS Festival Mumbai co-commission in partnership with the University of Brighton

Contrasting two very different photographers and two very different worlds, the works on display are united by the haunting sensitivity that uncovers the profoundly intimate and touching moments shared by the individuals behind the lens.

One of the main draws of the festival is The Dandy Lion Project, curated by Shantrelle P. Lewis.

The exhibition explores global expressions of the Black Dandy phenomenon against the backdrop of contemporary life, presenting more than 150 images from over thirty photographers and filmmakers.

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The Smarteez, Joburg style battles series 2012 © Daniele Tamagni

“I first curated the project in November 2010 in response to my frustration with mainstream images of black men portrayed in the media,” says Lewis. “The hyper glorified violence of black communities within stereotypical images and tropes that exist are a very aggressive, negative image of black men which has existed in the West since black people were enslaved and colonised.”

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Untitled, 2005 © Jody Ake

“I think it’s the responsibility of curators of African descent to use art to propel narratives that are not necessarily mainstream.”

“Dandyism is almost this free opportunity and form of empowerment because individuals who are demanding their own agency in the self styling of who they are as black men, not only how they see themselves but how they want to be seen by society and that’s what is such a powerful tool is the act of rebellion.”

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Mrs. S Were, former economist and personal advisor to the president (1972-1992), 2016 © Osborne Macharia

Another highlight comes from Newcastle born Ewen Spencer. Now based in Brighton, the photographer is firmly established for his work focusing on youth and subculture.

Kick over the statues casts young Londoners against locations along the route of the infamous Notting Hill Carnival to explore the contemporary representations of today’s youth style that are both genuine and striking.

“I quickly decided to locate the work around Notting Hill Carnival, for me that area of London has a timeline and is a genesis for different aspects of youth culture,” says Spencer. “West London is historically the home of the plurality of British culture in terms of ethnicity and style, it was hugely responsible for the beginning of the mod movement that for me was the beginning of youth style and culture as we know it today.”

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© Ewen Spencer Untitled from the series Kick over the statues a Photoworks and Fabrica co-commission for Brighton Photo Biennial 2016.

Large format images posted onto custom built billboards in the gallery space are supplemented with music and projected images from Spencer’s extensive personal archive.

“With the scale we really wanted to bring the external inside, I work commercially and I quite like seeing my work on billboards out there in city centres, and I have done for quite a long time.”

“I often get asked where is youth culture, where does it live right now, is it in the city or suburbs,” explains Spencer. “What I’ve come to the realisation of is that it’s online, that’s where youth culture and subculture lives now, so the idea of taking digital images and projecting them onto contemporary youth was quite intentional.”

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© Ewen Spencer Untitled from the series Kick over the statues a Photoworks and Fabrica co-commission for Brighton Photo Biennial 2016.

The youth are at the heart of the festival themselves, with many of the biennial’s other commissions turning their focus on collaboration and artistic exchange with young people, both as the subject and creators.

Our City, How do we Look? sees four University of Brighton students investigating the life and style of Brighton; while Into the Outside: The Story So Far re-examines the city’s rich LGBQ+ past and present, creating a new and evolving archive for queer youth experiences.

The major heritage learning project is led by artist Helen Cammock and a collective of young participants from 13-24 years of age, to examne how issues faced today by young people identifying as LGBQ+ compare with those faced by young LGBQ+ people over the past 40 years.

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Installation view, Into The Outside: The Story So Far, University of Brighton Galleries, Grand Parade. 2016 Photo Credit © Nigel Green. A Photoworks collaboration with the Mass Observation Archive, Brighton & Hove Library Services, the East Sussex Record Office and Queer in Brighton. Brighton Photo Biennial 2016.

These projects are the impetus for a textured programme of companion presentations and are enriched by a live events and digital programme, devised to throw a raking light on key aspects of the ideas raised by the festival.

Brighton Photo Biennial runs until 30 October 2016. For the full programme of events and more information, go here.