I was gutted to miss the launch of The Descendants at the Victoria Gallery & Museum, but I’m glad I did. Popping in on an unimportant Wednesday, I had the chance to speak to Ean Flanders properly about his work, and the reasons behind the decisions within it. For all the glamour of private views, and the networking they offer, nothing ever quite matches up to serendipitous chats with artists about the work they know.
The Descendants is a modern archive of Black scousers and their contributions to the city, its residents, and its culture.
The key point from Ean Flanders though, is less one of modern times, but one that seeks to reflect the rich history wrapped up Liverpool, which has the oldest established black community in Britain, helping to shape our culture and the identity of Liverpool since the 1710s.
The accompanying film runs somewhere between hopefully positive and candidly pessimistic. It focusses on the lived experience of Liverpool’s most influential Black residents, and their views on how living here has changed, or not, in their lifetime.
Subjects include Liverpool’s first Black, first female mayor, Joanne Anderson, and political figures like our first black lord mayor too. But they also seek to share the stories of local residents, without political means, who have made a difference to the way Liverpool recognises and understands either its need to change, or its history.
Beyond the formal politics though, this exhibition explores the political and social impact of single-person activists, whose life’s work has focussed on racial equality, in this city and beyond. Community leaders like Maria O’Reilly and the impact she’s had through countless Black organisations.
Buster Nugent, ran a one man protest outside Princes Park in Toxteth following the death of George Floyd. His portrait is hung near prominent figures from the 1981 Toxteth Riots, including Jimi Jagne, whose history of the events, and activism since, continues to improve the lives of Black scousers. What sticks out for me is the ambition of these protests from then to now, and how our local protests related not simply to Liverpool, Merseyside or Britain, but to global injustice.
As well as city residents who are praised for their direct contributions, are those who have become synonymous with Liverpool’s cultural sector. Ash Nugent, Marjorie Morgan, and Faith Bebbington have all been vocal members of Merseyside’s arts scene for many years, and each has made their own unique contribution. Perhaps the most powerful though is merely their presence of mind, and presence of body to continue making waves in theatre, literature, and visual art.
The theme running through this issue as we relaunch, is of value. This exhibition does not just add value to its gallery, or to its subjects. Its subjects have added value to Liverpool. In some cases, they have significantly changed the face of Liverpool.
They have done this by representing themselves truthfully, in some cases over decades of tough work. Ean Flanders, as is the role of any good photographer, simply shares those stories and collates that information.
If that is where he stopped, this would still have been a powerful and important installation, but he doesn’t. He continues to ensure his work is not simply dismissed as archive, by exploring the physicality of how he presents his photography.
Printed onto canvas, with textured borders and archival varnish, these images each stand with presence and power of their own, drawing on traditional portraiture both in their composition and setting, and their finish.
Having had the good fortune to bump into Ean on my visit, I’m sure there will be more from this project, and am certain that the significance of this archive will continue to educate and influence those who come across it.
The Descendants is open at the Victoria Gallery & Museum until 13th May 2023, and is free to view. It is one of the strongest bodies of work I’ve seen for some time, both in its content and its output. If you find time or can make it, see this.
Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith
The Descendants is open at the VG&M until 13th May