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Chris Steele-Perkins: Wolverhampton '78 Acclaimed photography collection at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Chris Steele-Perkins: Wolverhampton '78

Acclaimed photography collection at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery

by Ancient Champion, Columnist
first published: June, 2022
In 1978, the Sunday Times commissioned acclaimed photographer, Chris Steele-Perkins to document the diverse communities living and working in Wolverhampton in the UK

Chris Steele-Perkins
Wolverhampton '78
Wolverhampton Art Gallery
Until August 7th, 2022

This week will see the implementation of the new UK policy of forced deportation of refugees and asylum seekers. The policy, authored by Home Secretary Priti Patel is a divisive headline grabbing ruse, everything is always to be gamed by the Tories, it is a policy approved overwhelmingly in Parliament by the nationalist wing of English Conservative MPs. And the BBC news helpfully let me know by public opinion polls. In my lifetime at least, it feels very much like a new level of cruel and unnecessary indecency, visited on those who can least afford to fight it by those who don’t really need to be doing it.  It would be despicable at any time to pretend this is the best way to help refugees, to do it to win votes is sickening. To maintain this is the best way to fight against people traffickers begins to feel like I am living in a bizarre land punishing the people, not the traffickers. What next? Deport the children of the working class to stop their parents being mean to them? What Patel proposes is about as absurd.  You can email in your better aphorisms than mine. We’ll make a list.

I don’t suppose there’d be that much support if it was widely known that as part of the deal the UK Gov has agreed to bring Rwandan’s ‘difficult’ refugee cases to the UK on a 1 in 1 out basis. Filling up those expensive jet liners at whose expense? Humanity I guess.

It’s a policy applied alongside pilfering highly skilled medical staff from abroad rather than anticipating the needs of the UK ahead of time and training enough people here.

Anyway, clearly, racism is alive and doing very well in the UK in 2022 thank you very much.

In 1978, ten years after Wolverhampton MP, Enoch Powell sought to foment racism in the UK with an infamous barbaric speech, The Sunday Times commissioned acclaimed photographer, Chris Steele-Perkins to document the diverse communities living and working in Wolverhampton in the UK. Steele-Perkins set-out to portray the everyday lives of the multicultural community who called the Black Country ‘home’. Steele-Perkins’ poignantly illuminating work is currently being exhibited at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery as part of the cultural welcome mat laid out for visitors to the Commonwealth Games.

In America, the post war boom fueled some of the early generation gaps and heralded the invention of ‘scary’ teenagers, it’s often surprising to learn of the contrasting 50s deprivations in the UK. Rationing of food continued until 1954. Workers were needed to rebuild Britain after the war and a Windrush Generation left the Caribbean for the bleakness of the UK. I do love my father in laws’ quote about his first sight of England upon arriving at the docks in Southampton… “Everything was grayer than I’d thought.” He would smile as he recalled his surprise. 

I like to credit textile designer Tibor Riech for introducing Britain to coloured textiles in the 60s with his concepts of colour in fabric and interiors. He eventually did the Concorde you know. 

Meanwhile, the Caribbean migrants faced hardship and racial prejudice. Steele-Perkins, the son of a British Army Officer and Burmese Mother, was often asked: ‘Where are you from?’ a question that would cause a sense of being at once both British and Othered. As an objective observer he wasn't short of empathy.

Steele-Perkins images on display here were taken in Wolverhampton's churches and temples, in youth clubs and community centres are amongst his most enduring, “perhaps because their message has not been diluted by the passing of time. Fashion and music may change but the question of how we live with, and respect, difference remains vital.”1

There is also a collection in print  from the acclaimed Cafe Royal Books, which is in the habit of publishing collections proffering an authentic window to the past. Steele-Perkins Wolverhampton is certainly worth getting your eyes on.


Essential Info
Main Image: Chris Steele-Perkins Disco, Wolverhampton. England. GB. 1978. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos.
Wolverhampton Art Gallery here
Cafe Royal Books Wolverhampton '78 is here

Ancient Champion
Columnist

Ancient Champion writes for OUTSIDELEFT, relentlessly records instrumental easy listening tracks, and is always completing the short story collection, Six Stories About Motoring Nowhere. More info at AncientChampion.com


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