Ben Woolhead visits the Rhondda, specifically the Workers Gallery in Ynyshir, for People Power / Pwer Pobl, a photographic exhibition paying tribute to the strength of grassroots protest past and present.
In many ways, the Workers Gallery in the Rhondda is the perfect place for People Power (Pwer Pobl), an exhibition of protest photography. Not only do the Valleys have a proud tradition of principled dissent, but – as Workers founder and resident artist Gayle Rogers pointed out at the launch event on Sat 19 Nov – the gallery itself was born out of protest.
When Ynyshir Library fell victim to council cuts in 2014, despite demonstrations of public opposition, Gayle and husband Chris Williams refused to mope, stepping in to transform the building into a creative hub for the local community. The Workers has been fighting its corner and standing up for itself against all odds ever since.
Of this latest show, staged with the support of the Bishopsgate Archive and the Martin Parr Foundation (among others) and financial backing from the Lipman-Miliband Trust, Gayle says: “I wanted to put inspiring activist women of the past front and centre alongside the women activists fighting against injustice today.”
However, the images on display are not only of women but also by women. Many of them come from the Photographing Protest exhibition held at the Four Corners gallery in London earlier this year. As soon as Gayle read about it in the Guardian and then visited in person, she knew it was exactly what she had been looking for.
Several of these photos showcase the work of the female-only agency Format. The images from the Miners’ Strike, showing women standing resolutely shoulder-to-shoulder with men on the front line, will no doubt resonate most powerfully with local visitors. I’m reminded of the Public Service Broadcasting song They Gave Me A Lamp, which commemorates the political awakening experienced by many women at that time – and their stoic resilience in the face of state authority.
Another famous protest of the 1980s, against the stationing of US nuclear cruise missiles at Greenham Common, began when the Women For Life On Earth collective marched from Cardiff to the airbase in Berkshire and set up a peace camp. Raissa Page’s extraordinary pictures – including one of some pensioners with a sign reading “Grannies Against Nuclear Winter” and another of demonstrators holding hands in a bid to “embrace the base” – depict a long-term protest in which women really were, in Gayle’s words, “front and centre”.
If Page’s images feel like historical documents, then it’s alarming to note how many of the events recorded by the Format photographers in the 1980s were for causes that continue to mobilise people and inspire activism today: racism, abortion rights, nurses’ pay. As Four Corners artist-in-residence Angela Christofilou pointed out at the exhibition launch, if you set these photos alongside black-and-white pictures of contemporary protests, probably only the fashions would enable you to tell the difference.
Angela and Valleys-based photographer Tracey Leonard have contributed images of more recent demonstrations – including those in support of Ukraine, Black Lives Matter and trans pride, and against sexual violence and misogyny in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder. At the launch, they spoke about their personal practice and the shared experience of overcoming the distance and suspicion that a camera can automatically create. Many photographers underline the importance of building trust and rapport with their subjects – and in this context, it’s evidently especially critical.
The rich, participatory discussion with an engaged audience that followed covered everything from the ethics and sustainability of protest photography to the contemporary concern with perspective and (mis)representation. As her sound recordings of protests played in the background, Angela revealed that retirees seem more willing to become activists now (having more time on their hands and less fear of arrest and its consequences) and outlined her plan to photograph protesters alone in their homes, where the decision to make a stand is taken.
Following the success of the Art Box Tour in early 2020, Gayle also has a plan that involves home visits: taking People Power out on the road so that it can be seen and enjoyed by those who can’t make it to the gallery. It’s initiatives like this, and sensitivity to its location (both geographically and metaphorically), that make the Workers so special. Little wonder that when Welsh photography magazine Offline recently decided to publish an issue entitled Community, Gayle was invited to write the introduction.
Here’s hoping that the exhibition gets the attention that it deserves, amid the distractions of Wales’ involvement in the World Cup. The hosting of the tournament in Qatar has shone a spotlight on an authoritarian regime under which dissent and difference are suppressed. At the same time, another, in Iran, is seeking to crush women-led protests. It’s well worth pointing out, though, that the situation is hardly any better here in the UK, where – by virtue of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act – we have been quietly and stealthily deprived of more of our essential freedoms. In a country in which protest is increasingly restricted and criminalised, it’s to be hoped that the images in People Power don’t depict a dying art.
People Power / Pwer Pobl, Workers Gallery, Ynyshir, until Thurs 22 Dec. Admission: free. Info: www.workersgallery.co.uk/exhibitions
words BEN WOOLHEAD photos ANGELA CHRISTOFILOU and TRACEY LEONARD
Want more art?
The latest previews, reviews, features and interviews, from Wales and beyond.