As Richard Billingham’s first feature film is released, Arts Council Collection Curator, Beth Hughes, reflects on the role the artist’s work has played in her own career through Billingham’s seminal photo series, Ray’s a Laugh, which inspired the film.
There are some art works which you revisit periodically and you grow with them. Early in my career I had the opportunity to work with Incommunities, one of the largest social housing providers in the UK. I was based in Bradford at the time, working in the learning team of National Media Museum (National Museum of Science and Media) and we had a small amount of funding to work with half a dozen or so service users and introduce them to the museum. The group were all women, some with substance abuse issues, some had experienced homelessness, some were leaving prostitution, all had found themselves in a precarious living situation.
Of the various sessions we did together it wasn’t until we looked at Richard Billingham’s photography that I felt we connected as a group. Billingham’s gritty depictions of his early family life, his uncompromising, unsentimental delivery all chimed with the group. The women shared stories about their families, we laughed when laughing was appropriate, we listened, we found commonality with genuine exchange. Through these photographs the museum became a comfortable, familiar place for this group where they felt they had something worth sharing.
The uncomfortableness of the images lies in their truthfulness, they are an unblinking look at a chaotic life. Ray, the artist’s father, looks malnourished and in RAL13 is shown crashing, head first. Towards the floor in a drunken stupor. In the artist’s own words ‘Dad was some kind of mechanic, but he has always been an alcoholic.’ Liz, Richard’s mother, is a heavy smoker, decorated with tattoos and in the midst of the chaotic family home she can be found ordering a jigsaw, or as in RAL 49 subverting the traditional mother and child image as she smiles up at us syringe feeding a puppy. Billingham earned a Turner Prize nomination for this series of 75 photographs, wittily titled Ray’s a Laugh. Originally taken as studies for paintings, the photographs were ‘discovered’ by Billingham’s Sunderland University tutor and went on to be included in the celebrated Saatchi exhibition, Sensation (1997).
My early experience working with InCommunities has shaped my understanding of why open access to the arts is not just important, but a human right. As the artist summises ‘it’s not my intention to shock, to offend, sensationalise, be political or whatever, only to make work that is as spiritually meaningful as I can make it.’ These works were meaningful to that group of women at that time and with recent increases in domestic poverty their potency has not diminished.
Ray and Liz is screening in selected cinemas across the UK from 8 March 2019