In Russia my thoughts often turn to how one could flag up regional centres that few cultural historians or cultural commentators ever deign to visit, let alone write about. Indeed, I have long wanted to write a piece on the unusual cultural history of the Kuzbass. Novokuznetsk, the town where I lived for nine months in 2002-2003, does have the potential for an unwritten history. Aside from being the city where Dostoevsky first married during a brief stopover on his way to exile in Semipalatinsk, it produced one of the most interesting currents of photography in the late Soviet period, the Triva group or the so-called Novokuznetsk School of Photography. Then there was the Ilya Ehrenburg novel The Second Day, set in and very much based on his trip to the industrial city which was at the heart of the First Five Year Plan (by the end of the First Year Plan and for three decades, the city was to be known as Stalinsk). During those same years there was a visit by Joris Ivens to film aspects of this industrialisation process. Moreover, there are many curious stories of other international revolutionaries coming to Novokuznetsk and the other cities of the Kuzbass such as the German ‘Red Robin Hood’ Max Hoelz and the Dutch communist engineer and founder of the Kuzbass Industrial Autonomous Industrial Community, S.J. Rutgers. In the UK other regional cities tend to get an equally raw deal in the popular imagination as to what constitutes centres of culture.
Newcastle is a case in point. My first brief visits to the city in 2015 coincided with my work curating (together with Geetha Jayaraman) a Pasolini retrospective and exhibition and one which managed to bring a number of impressive speakers to the city. The Turner nominated artist, Craigie Horsfield made one of his extremely rare visits to the UK to speak about Pasolini’s Uccellacci e Uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows) with Daniel Bird. Other speakers included the author of Poor but Sexy Agata Pyzik; one of the UK’s more interesting film critics and a Wearsider to boot, Neil Young and the London-based Sicilian philosopher Federico Campagna. A far more impressive line up than events marking the fortieth anniversary of Pasolini’s death held in London.
During my 2015 trip to Newcastle I was fortunate to stumble upon an exhibition in the Laing Gallery entitled ‘For Ever Amber’. Detailing the decades-long work of the Amber Film and Photography Collective (coming together in 1968) whose production aimed to document the working class and marginalised communities of North East England, it paid tribute to one of the most impressive collections of post-war social photography in the UK. Indeed, the term ‘For Ever Amber’ was coined by none other than Henri Cartier-Bresson who spent his 70th birthday at an earlier retrospective of Amber’s work. In spite of the links with Cartier-Bresson and a highly-impressive photo and film collection of truly global significance, it took many decades for even the Laing Gallery to fully acknowledge their significance, and they still have yet to gain their due recognition outside of the Tyneside.
As my 2015 trip coincided with the renovation of the Side Gallery, I only visited it on this year’s trip. Based in an easy to miss location, my visit showed me precisely why the Side Gallery deserves a reputation as one of the most interesting national galleries. Two exhibitions were running there simultaneously and both were inspirational. Downstairs a collection of Syd Shelton’s photographs on the Rock Against Racism Movement in the late 1970s – a piece of history more than ever relevant in contemporary Britain. Upstairs were the moving portraits and photo’s detailing segregated America and the US Civil Rights Movment by Gordon Parks. Perhaps, the most moving part of the exhibition was the film and the series of portraits on the Fontenelle family from Harlem which was at the heart of the exhibition. Devised as an attempt to explain to the readership of Life why ‘race riots’ were happening in the late sixties, Parks was very much the chronicler of this period of American history. Looking through information about earlier exhibitions at the Side Gallery one can only marvel at why its name is not more well-known as one of the go-to photography venues in the UK. Next year promises to be a significant one too, at the beginning of 2018 it will be hosting two post-Soviet exhibitions on Lenin statues (entitled Looking for Lenin and an exhibition based on formerly prohibited photography sites in Belorussia).
The exhibition tied in well with a year-long celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the visit by Martin Luther King in 1967 to receive an honorary degree from Newcastle University, the first and only UK university to award him this honour. An installation work entitled Freedom (directed by Ian McDonald and produced by Geetha Jayaraman- the people behind the 2015 Pasolini event) to celebrate this visit and to reflect on the contemporary echoes that this visit has, was on show at the Great North Museum in Newcastle. No strangers to innovative film practice, their four-screen installation deserves a much wider audience. A three screen installation was specifically devoted to the visit of Dr Martin Luther King to Newcastle containing both contemporary and archive footage linking the historic visit and speech to its own time and to the present time, and a further fourth screen (located elsewhere) with its poetic mediation on light and darkness based on Martin Luther King’s account of a moment in his earlier journey to India manage to further broaden the horizons of thinking about King’s visit to Newcastle in 1967.
The power of the installation work Freedom was due, in no small way, to the generous space afforded it by the museum. The three 5 metre screens in the centre of the hall meant that the effect that the film had on the viewers was, no doubt, a more powerful one than it would be were this to be given a lesser space. The three screens almost ensure that the scenes provoked in the viewer a larger amount of reflections than a single film and also gave the viewer a desire to go to multiple viewings (each viewing allowing for a new reception to the film). Second and third viewings definitely helped one discover further elements.
The contrasting images and footage of Dr Martin Luther King’s speech at Newcastle and the events surrounding a contested visit by Enoch Powell to Newcastle in 1969 along with footage from recent pro-migrant demonstrations and with footage from a Donald Trump speech (with which the film begins) allow one to reflect on the links rather than necessarily giving the audience a didactic perspective on the images. The fourth screen filmed in Kerala in a place where Martin Luther King had previously visited added an almost metaphysical note to parallel to King’s words on the dialectic between light and darkness. Moreover, the authors by giving their work the title of Freedom manage to generate in the spectator new questions. The deliberate lack of commentary or voiceover in this work reinforces this reflective nature of their installation. Hopefully, this installation will find its way to other venues (Brighton has been talked about as a possible second venue). It would be a shame for such a powerful piece of work to be limited to a single venue.
At the same museum 25 photographs by Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris, a Pittsburg photographer who documented the years of segregration are supplemented by oral accounts of the period. The oral and visual combination worked well. While Gordon Parks may have been a more significant photographic figure, Harris’s photo’s have managed to capture a wide spectrum of human experience in the town of Pittsburg lending a vivid realism to the image of the city in early post-war America. The ability to listen to oral recollections of the times while observing the photographs was also a very successful feature of the exhibition and a brilliant curatorial decision.
I only caught the tail end of the year-long celebrations of the brief visit by Martin Luther King to Newcastle but from some of the exhibitions designed to celebrate this symbolic visit, Newcastle has managed to create some powerful cultural events and make a relevant cultural intervention in the contemporary moment (alas I have yet to visit the Tyne and Wear’s large Contemporary Art Centre, the Baltic, which also celebrates King’s visit). Newcastle’s (and the North East’s) cultural vitality deserves to be celebrated and reminds us that many of the most interesting cultural stories and phenomena come from the regions rather than the capital (the parochialism of many of London’s film critics is clearly in evidence when set beside the far more cosmopolitan and wide-ranging film criticism of Tyne and Wear’s best film critics, namely Neil Young and Michael Pattison, for example).
To return to my own Russia-centric obsessions, I’m left wondering how the history of Russian literature would have been altered without Yevgeny Zamyatin’s journey to Newcastle in World War One . Maybe one can also muse on how Bukharin’s brief arrest in the city (a year prior to Zamyatin’s visit) may have imperceptibly modified the course of history.