Artist Profile: Vanley Burke

1 October 2019

This month’s Artist of the Month is Birmingham-based photographer Vanley Burke, whose iconic images of the Windrush generation in his native Handsworth have established him as the ‘godfather of black British photography’. A number of Burke’s works from the Arts Council Collection go on show at Firstsite in Colchester this month as part of Super Black, a new National Partners exhibition.

Vanley Burke first picked up a camera as a ten year old boy in rural Jamaica, where he was born in 1951 in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. In 1965, at the age of fourteen, Burke followed his mother to live in Handsworth, Birmingham, where he immediately began capturing the lives of the community surrounding him.

Vanley seriously started photography around 1967, making a conscious decision to document the black community and lifestyle in England at the time. "I remember realising that all history had to start somewhere and that we were at a unique stage in history in this country." Burke has since reflected.

Burke set about documenting the lives of those around him, capturing key moments in the lives of individuals and families around him, while at the same time distilling an important era of migration and settlement in Birmingham. "History is a by-product of life and it will be written whether we participate in the process or not.” Burke recently commented, “I felt as a group of people who are living this history it is important that we get involved in documenting it.”

Today, Burke is often referred to as the ‘godfather of black British photography’ and his work has been exhibited widely both internationally and in the UK, including solo exhibitions at Cornerhouse in Manchester, Walsall Museum and Art Gallery and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.


The Arts Council Collection holds a number of works from Vanley Burke’s ‘Inside’ series from the late sixties, a selection of which will feature as part of Super Black at Firstsite in Colchester, in what will be the first exhibition in the second round of the Arts Council Collection National Partner programme.

Super Black, an exhibition exploring the complex questions of identity and the experiences of black people living in Britain today is led by people from Essex’s black community. The exhibition presents artworks from the Arts Council Collection, alongside new work by Southend-based artist, Elsa James, and objects from the Vanley Burke Archive.

In creating the exhibition, Elsa has been joined by Lawrence Walker, Chair of Black History Month Colchester, Rachel Walton, co-founder of African Families in the UK (AFiUK), and Simone McLean and Yasmin Carr, of Colchester-based S&S Caribbean Café.

The artworks they have chosen for the exhibition reflect the group’s discussions, consisting of pieces that they feel give an expression of black consciousness, and the representation of black artists in galleries across the UK.

The Arts Council Collection : Artist Profile: Vanley Burke
The Arts Council Collection : Artist Profile: Vanley Burke

The three black and white images from the ‘Inside’ series included in Super Black variously capture a wedding, a sorrowful and lonely-looking widow and a baptism, their subjects depicted caught in private, unguarded moments of introspection at ease and apparently oblivious to Burke’s lens.

This naturalistic intimacy that characterises Burke’s photography is a reflection of his perspective as a member of the same community rather than the dominant ‘outsider’ position of much documentary photography.

“The idea was to photograph everything between birth and death really” Burke has commented, “I live as part of the community I photograph and I’m very much aware of what’s happening around me.”


Super Black, an Arts Council Collection National Partner Exhibition, opens at Firstsite Colchester on 11 October until 12 January 2020.

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The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.