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Issue 232

Johny Pitts’s Portraits of Black British Lives

At Graves Gallery, Sheffield, the artist positions the home as a critical site of cultural preservation and exchange

BY Cathy Wade in Reviews , UK Reviews | 18 OCT 22

In ‘Home Is Not a Place’, writer and photographer Johny Pitts recasts the museum as a site for collective gathering. The two distinct bodies of work on display at Graves Gallery in Sheffield investigate the complexity and richness of Black British lives. Largely comprising archival photographs, objects and music from the artist’s childhood, the show also features images documenting a journey undertaken by Pitts and the writer, musician and performer Roger Robinson. (The two also collaborated on a coeval publication.) The pair travel along the River Thames to Tilbury, the docking point for HMT Empire Windrush in 1948, and visit numerous other locations around the British coast, including Glasgow, Land’s End, Margate and Scarborough. Along the journey, Pitts photographs a policeman on the tube (Policeman on the Central Line, London, 2010), a young woman with a climate-justice sign (The Activist, Cop 26, Glasgow, 2021), a family group (Family, Land’s End Cornwall, 2021) and a man waiting for his wife outside a photography shop (Photo Memories, Gillingham, 2020).

Johny Pitts, The Activist, Cop 26, Glasgow, 2021. Courtesy: © Johny Pitts

A taped broadcast of local DJ Lady D on Sheffield Community Radio – a pirate R&B and Reggae station from the 1990s – plays throughout the space. Pitts associates this soundtrack with growing up in the city. A table made by Pitts’s sister, Chantal, stands in the first gallery. An exuberant Konica Color Lab and Studios logo, which first appears in the documentary photographs, is painted on one end of the table; the other is engraved with a section of a map of Firth Park, a residential district to the north of the city. Flipbook photo albums contain a tightly edited series of archival images: one set shows the artist’s former family home; another features found Kodachrome slides of Marseille.

Johny Pitts, Dean House, Penryn, 2021. Courtesy: © Johny Pitts

In the second gallery, the focus shifts from daytime images to evening shots. Here, photographs are arranged mostly in dialogic diptychs. But Kenya Fried Chicken, Firth Park, Sheffield (2010) documents a man with an Afro walking down a foggy street, silhouetted by the lamps stationed along a row of shuttered takeaways, one of which bears the name Kenya Fried Chicken. It is a moment of what the artist refers to in his book Afropean: Notes from Black Europe (2019) as ‘street level multiculturalism’, which has transfigured lived space in its own image. The personal archives Pitts has installed in the gallery – the cassette tapes preserving Sheffield Community Radio’s Black music broadcasts, for instance – document the ownership of and access to such space.

By using the gallery to re-create a domestic setting, Pitt’s welcomes in gathering, informality and dialogue acknowledging the Black British home as a critical site of cultural preservation and exchange. This lived experience contrasts with what Pitts perceives to be an ephemeral Black public presence in Sheffield, with the places of congregation found in the blues parties of Donkeyman, the Summer Jam festival and the pirate broadcasts he recalls in the city from his youth having disappeared with the regeneration of public space.

Johny Pitts, RFC Fish & Chips, Blackpool, 2021. Courtesy: © Johny Pitts

‘Home Is Not a Place’ draws together in dialogue the Black British lives photographed at the country’s margins. As Robinson writes in the show’s companion publication: ‘Johny’s superpower is to reveal hidden but experienced culture.’ Palpable within both the exhibition and the book is the desire to draw together the complexity of everyday life, making public the community found in moments between strangers and friends.  

Johny Pitts’s ‘Home Is Not a Place’, commissioned by Photoworks for the inaugural Ampersand/Photoworks Fellowship, is on view at Graves Gallery, Sheffield, until 24 December and at Stills Gallery, Edinburgh 9 March–10 June 2023. The accompanying book Home is Not a Place by Johny Pitts and Roger Robinson is published by Harper Collins. 

Main image: Johny Pitts, Man through rain dappled window, Carnaby Street, London (after Sade), 2010. Courtesy: © Johny Pitts

Cathy Wade is an artist and writer based in Birmingham, UK.