October is set to be an historic month for British politics, but it also marks a special kind of history in Peckham; the much anticipated return of UNDEREXPOSED ARTS ‘Peckham Portraits’ – depicting black British, dual heritage African/Caribbean actors, to their original home on Peckham Hill Street at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.
The portraits, that lined Peckham Hill Street for almost ten years, became one of London’s longest running public art installations. Now they are set to be reinstated during this year’s Black History Month celebrations as homage to the Peckham community.
The large-scale portrait photographs, which include stars of stage and screen,such as Idris Elba, Adjoa Andoh, Kwame Kwei-Armah (now Artistic Director of the Young Vic theatre), David Oyelowo, Diane Parish, Colin Salmon and Rudolph Walker, were captured by award winning visual artist Franklyn Rodgers. They also feature inspirational quotes – ‘Gems of knowledge’, from each actor.
UNDEREXPOSED ARTS was conceived by film and television actor Fraser James to address the perceived lack of positive black role models – something often cited as a contributory cause of crime and violence amongst the young black community. The ‘Peckham Portraits’ – one of the first UNDEREXPOSED ARTS artistic interventions, originally made their debut at the National Portrait Gallery in 2008, before being installed at their Peckham Hill Street home.
Fraser James says: “When we launched, I remember commenting that ‘role models are the foundation of aspiration’. Today I still believe that there are many potential black role models in our community, but their visibility needs to be greater. In the eleven years since the original portraits launched on Peckham Hill Street a lot has changed.
“Time Out recently did a survey of the 50 coolest neighbourhoods to live in the world. Peckham was voted 11th. A generation of Peckham-born black actors, inspired by the original portraits, including John Boyega and Damson Idris, have gone on to launch international acting careers. The reinstatement of the Portraits to their original home in
Peckham is, we believe, another positive step in underlining the wealth of talent across the British black community.”
The significance of the portraits to the Peckham community was underlined in 2017 when Southwark Council reacted positively to the thousands of tweets in response to their removal by relocating them to PeckhamPlex cinema. And since the original UNDEREXPOSED ARTS project launched, the issues around representation remain pertinent.
Adds Fraser: “While visiting Peckham at the end of 2018 I met Arran Samuels, a Peckham resident who grew up in the area, Arran said of the Portraits.
‘I used to walk past the portraits every day to and from school. I never knew how they got here but whenever I looked at the portraits, they made me walk tall’. That conversation was an emotional moment for me. It opened my eyes to the impact of what we did in 2008. It was that moment that inspired me to reassemble the individuals and organisations behind the original works.”
Using a small grant awarded to Franklyn Rodgers from the Art360 Foundation, the team carried out research into the significance of the works over the ten-year span. It heard
from various members of the community, who felt that the portraits of the actors made them feel represented in ways rarely seen in mainstream media. Retired pastor Reverend Dr Edward Frank Goveia, who ministered at Rye Lane church for 18 years, said of the works, “You become the things you spend time focusing on. The
portraits were edifying and gave the community ‘a point of connection, identity and reflection.”
The UNDEREXPOSED ARTS’ ‘Peckham Portraits’ journey then came full circle when the team discovered that the building works originally prompting the removal of the portraits, turned out to be for the new home for Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, an institution deeply committed to diversity and inclusivity.
Artistic Director Stephen Jameson, who taught actor David Oyelowo, one of the featured actors, affirmed that ‘improving access to training has always been at the heart of
Mountview’s ethos. “We are open to the experience and challenge that diversity brings to the table. Together we are at the forefront of positive change for the UK arts industry.
And James added “Reinstating The ‘Peckham Portraits’ will be an electrifying moment. It’s our way of saying we heard you and thank you to the community that cherished them for so
many years. We also hope of course that it will inspire the next generation. When you see yourself on a building, you can see yourself in it.”
The ‘Peckham Portraits’ relaunch takes place on Tuesday, October 15 at 09:00 at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. Students from local schools who used to
visit the portraits as part of their studies are invited, along with members of the Peckham community, local councillors – plus, of course, the original stars featured in the portraits.