There’s been a lot of press about how, in the last few months, there’s been little in the way of live music or theatre. Also suffering in the entertainment and cultural sector has been the art world. Lovers of exhibitions have been largely starved of a cultural fix as galleries remained shut throughout lockdown. And whilst some are now open for business, a trip to an art gallery isn’t what it was pre-lockdown, the National Gallery in London being a prime example of how exhibitions are now produced to include measures against Covid, including reduced visitor numbers to enable social distancing, as well as the mandatory wearing of face masks.
So, circumstances seemed to be against them when Photoworks were organising the 9th iteration of what, until this year, had been known as the Brighton Photo Biennial, the UK’s largest curated international photography festival. Aligning the festival closer to the core values of its curators since 2012, the newly branded Photoworks Festival also celebrates the 25th anniversary of this international platform for artists and audiences alike, who champion photography for everyone.
Original, pre-pandemic plans of a more traditional-looking exhibition had to be scrapped, and the team at Photoworks, determined to go ahead with this landmark event in some guise or other, set about thinking how they could still showcase the work of hugely talented artists from across the globe, even whilst the galleries and indoor public spaces potentially remained closed.
And what they came up with was rather ingenious.
This year’s festival, entitled Propositions for Alternative Narratives, exploring less traditional histories of photography than the generally accepted Western view, can now be experienced three ways: a ‘festival in a box,’ an outdoor festival and a festival hub.
The first of these, inspired by the seminal photobooks of Dayanita Singh, is described as a deconstructed magazine, and includes artworks and texts from the photographers and curators. “It is an attempt to rethink both the content and format of the traditional photography festival, offering an alternative model for curating, disseminating and interacting with photography,” the festival’s curator, Julia Bunnemann, tells me. “It is a portable festival where you become the curator and decided where and how to install it.” Containing work from 11 contemporary artists, there is even a wall label for each, giving you all the information you need. What’s more, Photobox are distributing these to worthy bodies including universities, artists’ studios and community groups.
The online festival hub, found across Photoworks’ digital platforms, delves further into the themes and subjects featured in the box. It offers events, talks, films and podcasts, and provides a link from the physical work to the digital audience. They combine to form a festival that can be experienced anywhere in the world, in any way an individual audience member chooses.
Finally, the outdoor festival showcases some of the event’s highlights on poster sites and billboards across Brighton and Hove, and as far as Worthing. You can come across these by happy chance, or you can discover more on Photoworks’ fabulous interactive website that shows you exactly where each artwork is, as well as providing information about the work and the artist.
As a result of the creative thinking and determination to go ahead and to support both the artists and the community, they have succeeded in perfectly encapsulating Photoworks’ stated vision of “photography for everyone.” You could barely have a more inclusive approach to photography and art, than exhibiting large, original artworks across the city, for free, for anyone and everyone to go and see, or even simply to come across and be surprised and inspired in equal measure.
The exhibition is a masterclass not only in photography, from a global selection of exciting and provocative artists, but also in the skills, knowledge and adaptability required of the curatorial team behind such an event. “This year was a challenge,” Julia explained, “but it also opened opportunities to be experimental, to find alternative ways of showing photography. Photography is a very democratic medium, and we wanted to explore this even further.”
The outdoor exhibition includes works of art at the following locations, among many more. Further information about each work of art, and the full list of locations can be found on the interactive map, here.
Upper Lewis Road
Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts
Farah Al Qasimi’s work draws on her experiences of growing up in the United Arab Emirates and examines postcolonial structures of power and gender in the Gulf region.
Lotte Andersen is a very diverse artist. Her practice is rooted in an exploration of interconnectivity and club culture. Flyering is an integral part of that, and the festival includes several collages and flyers she has created over the years.
Poulomi Basu’s Centralia is a portrait of contemporary India, a twisted spin on classical documentary photography that draws attention to a multi-layered conflict in which everyone seems to lose.
Roger Eberhard’s series interrogates over 2000 years of human history depicting sites of former national or imperial borders that have shifted or ceased to exist.
Pixy Liao’s ongoing project Experimental Relationship explores inherited and learned cultural stereotypes, and how these factors can influence a partnership that draws from different cultures.
Guanyu Xu refracts his personal experiences in the USA through a fictional narrative to examine sexuality and national pride.
Ivars Gravlejs’s Shopping Poetry finds beauty in ordinary products, reinventing the traditional still life. The project is a playful reflection on the mundane process of acquiring commodities in contemporary capitalist society.
Alix Marie’s work embraces sculpture to convert photography into a multisensory encounter. The images come with instructions and should be exhibited rolled up in cylinders attached to one another.
Ronan Mckenzie’s work, Explorations of Brown, presented here under this title for the first time, encourages the viewer to consider the sound, hues and images evoked by the colour brown and to question the sociopolitical preconceptions that influence these instinctive reactions.
Sethembile Msezane’s work explores the politics of public commemoration, history making, spirituality and African epistemologies. Her multidisciplinary practice aims to unearth the stories of individuals who have been rendered invisible, and advocates ancestral spirituality as a form of healing.
Alberta Whittle uses humour and sarcasm to create layers of meaning, addressing themes including disempowered histories, climate colonialism, trauma, healing and discomfort with how privilege is performed and engaged with.
Something to actually enjoy in 2020
It has been a hugely difficult time for the artistic community, from the artists and curators, to the public who they’re so keen to engage with. I asked Julia how important it was to go ahead with this exhibition in such extraordinary circumstances.
“When rethinking the programme, we made the decision not to postpone the festival but to create a festival that can be enjoyed by many despite the pandemic. So many shows had been cancelled or postponed and artists had to waive their fees, so we were determined to create something that the audience can enjoy in 2020. I truly believe it is very important to show some art at this very moment. We want to invite people to enjoy art and to distract them from their daily life, but also to make them think of wider issues that are important to the photographers.”
In providing such an innovative, accessible and wide-reaching exhibition, Photoworks have achieved just that, and it continues to have a positive impact across the region and beyond.
The Photoworks Festival runs until 25th October. For more information on any of the artists listed above, to order a festival in a box, and to learn more about every element of this highly original festival, please visit the Photoworks website.