Issue Archive

Any Answers: Mark Sealy

© Michael Grieve.

This month, the director of Autograph ABP reflects on his life and career

This article was originally published in issue #7894 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

Taking charge as director in 1991, Mark Sealy has steered Autograph ABP from its beginnings as the Association of Black Photographers to an arts agency with a broader mission, building an archive of new and existing works to provide an “understanding of how photography relates to cultural identity, representation, human rights and social justice”.

I was born in London. But I like to say I was forged in Newcastle.

I was very much in a minority at that time. Arriving as a black youth at the age of nine, I had many stress points. We moved to Meadow Well Estate in North Shields, a maze of council houses, which was very different from the long, wide streets of Stamford Hill in north London.

My impression was that people were being battered from all directions. They seemed willing to hurt each other with ease, but at the same time to be equally able for moments of kindness and friendship.

I’m still processing that past. When I look back through the archives of the Amber Collective, I’m thrilled and saddened about how the north-east was back then. Newcastle helped me understand what I did not want to be. I love the place, but could not stay.

I studied at Bath Lane Art College. It no longer exists, but for me it was a key to a door. The sense of liberation there was great. I did a year-long foundation course that was very focused on getting students into their first-choice art school. It was here that I discovered the darkroom.

Sarat Maharaj was essential to my understanding of the politics of representation. Being in his presence at Goldsmiths was a wonderful experience and long-lasting inspiration.

Prior to Autograph, I was still making art and curating. I curated a small show at the People’s Gallery in Camden in 1986. Titled Young, Black and Here, it was of mixed-media artists who were recent art school graduates. The idea, of course, was to create a platform for visibility.

Autograph was born from a real need. People like Sunil Gupta, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Monica Baker, David A Bailey, Merle van den Bosch, Roshini Kempadoo, Stuart Hall, and many others recognised that an agency representing black photography in the UK was essential.

The greatest contribution Autograph has made to British culture? It has played a key role in widening the discourse of photography globally. From helping Santu Mofokeng with his first major exhibition in South Africa to publishing artist monographs, there is not one great contribution, but rather it’s been about entering the frame of an ongoing dialogue.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode is still a source of great inspiration for me. I often return to his words and images about being an outsider.

The future of Autograph is the collection. We are now working really hard at putting it to work, which is having a really big impact in schools and other important places.

I like the idea that we have to be responsible for each other. I like the old-fashioned use of the word ‘curator’, meaning to care for things.

The issues of identity politics seem to have evolved. And great gains have been made. Yet we seem to be more divided as people. There is still so much work to do, but I remain optimistic.

The music of John Coltrane helps me think the impossible is possible. His creative genius is really beyond anything else I have ever heard.

I am curating the Houston FotoFest Biennial. It’s an enquiry into contemporary photographic artists that have links to Africa. The challenge is to imagine Africa as a fact that is everywhere – as something to look up to. It’s an African cosmology influenced by jazz.

When I look at work, I like to ask, ‘what is the work that the work is doing’? That’s something I learned from the late Andrea Noble.

What has photography taught me? That I do not live in this dimension. That I have been framed historically, and that it will be a long time before that historical framing is unfixed.

I am happiest being at the coast with my family. When I was young, being by the coast at Tynemouth helped us imagine different possibilities, different times, different ways of being.

Mark Sealy’s latest curatorial project African Cosmologies, a large- scale group show for FotoFest Biennial in Houston, Texas, has unfortunately been postponed due to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).

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