Bare Reality

 Great book, great woman – Laura Dodsworth’s book Bare Reality, featuring 100 topless women and their stories, is out today. I interviewed her for Motherland (read it here). What i’ve loved most is having this book out in my sitting-room, as it recieves an array of reactions, from laddish “yeah, tits!” to a woman saying she’d always wanted to look at loads of pictures of women’s breasts. But it’s the stories accompanying the photos that make it so wonderful: honest, tender, funny, enlightening.  

Visit the website here

See the photographs exhibited at The Canvas, 42 Hanbury Street, London E1 5JL from 5-11 June

But first: read this interview.


Kimathi Donkor’s exhibition explores African and Carribean history as well as racial tensions today

(article published in October issue of the Hackney Citizen and online here.)

On his first night in London Kimathi Donkor, aged 19, was walking down a street in Brixton when he was stopped by the police. They said they needed his help with some enquiries and took him to the station, where he was interrogated.

It was the mid-eighties and not uncommon, says Donkor, for black youth to be arrested and detained with no palpable allegation.

“I’ve been detained several times since then. It’s a joke. ‘Helping with enquiries’ is a common, ironic phrase meaning someone has been arrested. They say ‘so and so is helping with police enquiries,’ and it’s a euphemism for being interrogated.”

Donkor had moved to London to study art at Goldsmiths. He chose to use his harrowing experience to inspire a disturbing self-portrait Helping with Enquiries 1985, 2005 – in which he is naked and being attacked by a policeman.

This piece is currently hanging in the Iniva Gallery, Rivington Place, as part of Donkor’s exhibition Queens of the Undead.

Spread over two floors, Donkor’s large canvasses explore black African and Caribbean history: bold political figures of African origin, discrimination, slavery – but they also comment on the racial tension that still exists today.

The three portraits on the first floor pay homage to Stephen Lawrence, Joy Gardner, Jean Charles de Menezes and Cynthia Jarrett: four people whose deaths were considered to be connected with race issues and all of which prompted investigations into the Metropolitan Police.

“Stephen Lawrence’s death was not properly investigated,” explains Donkor, “and it was a watershed moment when the police force eventually admitted it was institutionally racist. Hard to say if that’s a good thing or a bad thing – good that they were able to acknowledge the problem, bad that the problem existed.”

Donkor leads me through the gallery, explaining the beguiling narratives that weave through his portraits. He is calm, cool and eloquent – a captivating story-teller. But the stories are not made up, they are taken from real life, and Donkor is acutely aware of this.

“Jean Charles was actually a close neighbour of mine,” he admits, “lived 100 metres from me, and the person the police were looking for probably looked more like me than Jean Charles – so there’s this notion that it could have been be.”

Donkor’s portraits are intricately detailed. This is because, he says, he has a “strong affinity with these people, the way the state interacts with communities seen as other or migrant, so the detail is a way of generating empathy with the subject of each painting.”

“The reaction of the authorities is to claim that each incident is isolated and nothing to do with anything else. But one of the central aspects of my work is memory. If you have one – you will start to see a pattern.”

Donkor grew up in rural Dorset, “an idyllic life,” he says, “but lots of hard work too”. His family was involved in agriculture. He had a Christian upbringing; “attended a religious school, got sent to Sunday school.”

“Christian imagery and literature had a strong effect on my early life,” he explains, “but I’m not a church-goer now.” Biblical references, however, continue to appear in the titles of his works, as well as in the narratives.

In his painting Johny was Borne Aloft by Joy and Stephen, 2010, Donkor has depicted Jean Charles de Menezes being carried to heaven by Stephen Lawrence and Joy Gardner.

As with all his portraits, friends have posed as models, so Joy and Stephen are only recognisable because of the title of the piece.

“Stephen and Joy are guardian angels taking up the soul of Jean Charles, perhaps not guardians – it’s too late by then – but perhaps the scent of an afterlife.”

In the ground floor gallery, Donkor’s paintings of powerful black women throughout the centuries are displayed on metal stands – “They’re more like objects,” he says, “so you can walk around them and read the narratives on the back, which put them into context.”

In this painting Where shall we 3? (Scenes from the life of Njinga Mbandi), 2010, Njinga Mbandi, a 17th Century southern African princess is sitting down opposite a white, male European governor. Instead of sitting on a chair like he does, she sits on the back of a white woman.

“The governor attempted to intimidate the princess by telling her to sit on the floor in front of him, and she responded by getting one of her servants to act as a seat,” explains Donkor, “this immediately transforms the power dynamic of the meeting. She steps from being a subordinate character to taking a dominant position.”

The white woman/stall in the painting is a friend of Donkor’s. “With these paintings I’m working with people and places who are very far removed from our life, centuries ago. Somehow I want to bring them closer to create an environment for the viewer where they can approach these figures.”

In another piece, Nanny’s Fifth Act of Mercy, 2012, based on Nanny, a revered historical figure in Jamaica, a European woman cowers below the powerful Nanny, hands in prayers, and a white man lies dead at her feet.

“The common discourse is that black people, in terms of servitude, are servants of white people,” Donkor says. He is subverting this stereotype in these two paintings. And it is powerful.

He discusses his diverse cultural heritage and why he has made this the subject of his exhibition – “the people of Africa, the Caribbean, people from these parts of the world who settled in Britain, they’re important to my heritage.”

But why the focus on females? “’Why’ is a difficult question for me, as a practitioner, but I know what I’m doing. I want to bring these particular heroines to the foreground. For me, they’re people I’ve grown up with, but I understand they’re not widely known so it’s wanting to generate that environment myself – I want more of this imagery to be available to me.”

Kimathi Donkor: Queens of the Undead
Until 24 November 2012
Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts)
Rivington Place
London EC2A 3BA

Reggae fans in London 1977

An exhibition of photographs by David Corio at Chats Palace captures legendary musicians at the heights of their powers

(Published in the August edition of the Hackney Citizen and online here)

Photographer David Corio spent the 80s and 90s rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bob Marley, the Fugees and Marvin Gaye. An exhibition of his beautiful black and white photographic portraits – One Good Thing About Music – is currently on display at Chats Palace, Chatsworth Road.

Raised in a musical household in the 70s, Corio developed an early love for old blues and R&B. He left school at 16 on a mission to combine his love of music with his love of photography and snap superstars of the music industry.

Late nights in the pit were followed by long hours processing in a dark room – he would have his photos on the desk of NME early in the morning before any of the other music hacks had arrived for work.

It was this determination, says former editor of the NME, Neil Spencer, that made Corio stand out. “Talent and dedication are rarely stalled for long,” he says, “and the tall, modest young snapper duly became a mainstay of NME’s ‘live’ section.”

He was soon receiving commissions from NME, Time Out, City Limits and The Times – amongst other publications.

Corio admits that he was lucky, when he was starting out, to have a sister going out with singer/guitarist Wreckless Eric who had a record deal with Stiff Records in the early punk days. The musician introduced Corio to Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe.

The photographs in One Good Thing About Music include portraits of Missy Elliott, Marianne Faithfull and numerous other big names. He has displayed short anecdotes alongside the images explaining what the experience was like for him.

Corio writes that he was over-awed at the thought of meeting Miriam Makeba. Has he been star-struck by anyone else?

“Oh yes. With varying degrees of success too. Curtis Mayfield was a big hero and it was a real surprise to first meet him backstage when instead of shaking hands he gave me a big hug. The same with Dennis Brown, Augustus Pablo, Lee Perry and Bobby Womack – they were all amazing people as well as incredible musicians.

“I got to photograph them all on quite a few occasions over the years and they were always a pleasure to hang out with. I had a bit more grief with James Brown and Nina Simone.”

Spencer’s admission that “David has always had an eye for a gig’s killer moment” is well illustrated in this collection of images. Each portrait captures the subject with all his/her emotion, fragility and energy intact.”

His 1995 photo of Notorious B.I.G shot – a close-up profile, honing in on Biggie’s lips sucking the mic, the sweat pouring down his cheeks – is testimony to Corio’s discerning eye.

Similarly, the photo of Marianne Faithfull on stage at the Dominion Theatre in 1982, smoking a cigarette – she always smoked on stage, says Corio – reveals an innocence and vulnerability that could so easily have be missed.

Corio has chosen to display only black and white images because most of the photos were taken in the pre-digital 80s; for speed of processing and to keep costs down, music magazines would avoid commissioning colour shots.

But he also prefers black and white, and he has a penchant for film over digital: “It has much more character and you can control what you get in the darkroom,” he says, “you can also put your own personal stamp on the image.”

Corio’s days backstage or jostling in the photographers’ pit are over. But he has also been put off photographing stars because of the constraints that record companies put on their shoots. “They have this ridiculous control over what is allowed and I hate the idea of working with hair, makeup and stylists,” he says.

He shot portraits of Sinead O’Connor earlier this year at her home, as well as of all the Wainwright family in New York a couple of months ago – all in the show.

Corio has an upcoming exhibition of his music photos in Florence and he will display his images of Megaliths in Stroud in September. He likes the idea of photographing Nelson Mandela but is otherwise happy to display shots from his formative glory-years on tour and spending many a late night at gigs.

One Good Thing About Music
Until 28 October, open weekends
Chats Palace
42-44 Brooksby’s Walk
E9 6DF

Tel: 020 8986 6714

More about David Corio here.