Autograph ABP: Accessing Britain’s diverse cultural heritage through photography

Autograph ABP: Accessing Britain’s diverse cultural heritage through photography

Portrait of Renée Mussai, Curator and Head of Archive, Autograph ABP
Renée Mussai, Curator and Head of Archive at Autograph ABP talks about their journey in establishing the archive that has been key to helping others explore photography's diverse cultural history.

Autograph ABP is a charitable arts agency founded in 1988 specialising in contemporary and historical photography and moving image works that explore questions of cultural identity, race, representation and human rights.

Based at our landmark building Rivington Place, designed by renowned architect David Adjaye in Shoreditch, London, we curate exhibitions nationally and internationally, and publish widely on photography and cultural politics.

One of the key aspects of our artistic programme is the development of our Archive & Research Centre, made possible through a four-year Heritage Grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) awarded in 2007. The archive was originally established to address a series of gaps in the visual representation of Britain’s cultural history and its diverse communities - with the on-going mission to foster progressive photographic research in relation to global politics of migration, diaspora and difference.

Through HLF’s continuing support, we have been able to preserve the legacy of significant bodies of work by a constituency of photographers and historical image portfolios traditionally overlooked, often uniquely available through Autograph ABP.

The artists we represent come from diverse cultural backgrounds, and work in critical fine art practice as well as documentary and reportage.

[quote]"Through HLF’s continuing support, we have been able to preserve the legacy of significant bodies of work by a constituency of photographers and historical image portfolios."[/quote]

One example is found in the work of James Barnor, an octogenarian veteran Ghanaian photographer who avidly documented London becoming a cosmopolitan, multicultural metropolis during the ‘swinging 60s’. Unknown to a wider public for most of his career, his extensive collection of photographs - a treasure trove of great historical significance - was tucked away from public view for decades, stored in shoe boxes, plastic bags and Tupperware in his home until Autograph ABP’s ‘archive intervention’ in 2010.

Today visitors to Autograph ABP can view over one hundred photographs by James Barnor in our archive, amongst approximately five thousand other works relevant to pre- and post Windrush culturally diverse histories in Britain. These images can be accessed via appointment at Autograph ABP, through our digital image bank, and incorporated into the curriculum as part of a series of dedicated learning resources made available to teachers and educators nationwide.

Most recently, we have been engaged in a new pioneering research programme entitled The Missing Chapter, supported by HLF over three years (2013-16). As part of this project we have been able to unearth hundreds of photographs of black presences in 19th century Britain, a majority of which have not been seen in public since the late 1800s - identified through original research carried out in several national and private collections. Offering new knowledge and different ways of seeing cultural diversity in Victorian Britain, the project continues our mission of redressing persistent ‘absence’ within the historical record and brings the photographic archive out of the gallery or museum context into direct engagement with different communities: to this end, in addition to pop-up and gallery exhibitions, publications and online portfolios, we are presenting a series of Image Projections in public spaces across London.

To establish a dedicated photography archive has been a key objective for Autograph ABP since the early 1990s. Working with the Heritage Lottery Fund has enabled us to realise this ambition: not only has our organisational profile increased significantly, we have also been able to help other institutions to diversify their holdings, and make a richer and more diverse cultural history of photography accessible for diverse audiences nationwide. We look forward to continuing this journey over the years to come.