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Johny Pitts debuts beautifully evocative exhibition at Graves Gallery

The Sheffield-born photographer presents ‘Home is Not a Place,’ a musing on what it is to be Black in Britain

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Johny Pitts’ new exhibition ‘Home is Not a Place’ is a warming and vivid window into the photographer’s journey around the British coast with poet Roger Robinson in search of an answer to the question: what is Black Britain?

The Graves Gallery’s summary for the exhibit reads:

On display alongside images of Sheffield’s Firth Park, where he grew up, the works look beyond physical and geographical boundaries. Together, they reflect on home as rooted in the communities we’re part of and the connections we share.

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Museum bright

Upon entry to the exhibition the first room is set up, at first glance, as a fairly standard showing of photographs in a gallery. A series of images are taken in by people slowly circling the room. In the middle sits a table featuring a number of photo albums, the old kind where the images cascade onto one another like a flip book meeting a Rolodex. They’re the first hint that Pitts’ collection is an assemblage of family and friends that comprise home. The second room of the exhibition has an altogether different mood. You have to move through a beaded curtain to enter a warmly lit room. In the corner sits a reconstructed living room, complete with stereo system, faded rug, a battered lamp, and a sofa with a scratchy but familiar piece of fabric laid out on it.

It’s difficult to write a review of an art exhibition as full of feeling as this one. Pitts evokes a feeling in the chest of home – whatever that may be: places, family, friends, food, busy streets at night, cosy spaces, and more. His work asks the questions you might expect of an exhibition on the subject of home, but it also answers those questions by stitching together an atmosphere.

The importance of seeing people that look like you represented everywhere – be that in films, museums, adverts, and so on – cannot be overstated. The importance of seeing people who don’t look like you in the context of home and community is often missed, however. For a city like Sheffield which has been beset with anti-Blackness and racism at its core, this exhibit is a shining and comforting beacon. I’ve lived in Sheffield for over a decade and have only just started seeing the historical presence of brown people who look like me in the context of home and community. As a brown person, I know well the soft glow that comes from knowing that Black people from Sheffield will be able to see themselves reflected in one of the city’s galleries.

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Home is not a place

One of the placards invites visitors to sit and relax:

Home is not a place for suffering.

This echoes throughout the exhibit, and is ever more resonant given the violent and all-encompassing writhing of anti-Blackness across Britain. The paragraph continues:

Home is a space of solace for the bones in your skin to relax. Perhaps there’ll be a space to grow, where weary minds can bloom.

To be at home, to be at ease, is something that may well not happen easily for Black people at galleries and museums in Sheffield. Such spaces in Britain are often full of plundered, stolen artefacts, ransacked by the British empire. For Pitts to welcome people to be at ease as they consider home, is revolutionary. The exhibition encourages thriving, while acknowledging the pain of surviving. Pitts uses sharp lighting to throw relief on Black subjects in his photography. People are shown rooted in their homes, and that sense of home is no single thing.

One of the descriptions of the images mentions race and culture writer Paul Gilroy. In 1993, Gilroy discussed the term “diaspora” – itself a word which captures the movement at the heart of words like “home”. Many of us in Britain are at home with the transitory nature of home. In his seminal work Small Acts Gilroy wrote:

The value of the term ‘diaspora’ increases as its essentially symbolic character is understood. It points emphatically to the fact that there can be no pure, uncontaminated or essential blackness anchored in an unsullied originary moment. It suggests that a myth of shared origins is neither a talisman which can suspend political antagonisms nor a deity invoked to cement a pastoral view of black life that can answer the multiple pathologies of contemporary racism.

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Almost 30 years on, Pitts uses the sentiment of Gilroy’s work to display an easing into home, whatever that may be. His work is aware of the sharpness of anti-Blackness in Britain. It’s an essential part of the work. It’s also careful to offer comfortable seating from which to drink in the visions of home that he conjures up. Pitts doesn’t just ask ‘what is home to you?’ He asks how home makes you feel, how home changes or moves, and how home settles in your bones.

Pitts’ exhibition is a journey through nostalgia and hope. It’s a movement through the ever-shifting nature of what home is. It’s an exploration of Blackness in Britain that searches for ease, warmth, and comfort. The subjects in his photographs are steeped in visions of home that invite a gentle reflection of the heart of home. At the side of one of his images, Pitts says:

Whenever Sheffield is exported, in films such as The Full Monty (filmed predominantly where I grew up), I don’t necessarily recognise it as where I grew up, because my memories of home are not particularly of growing up in Sheffield, per se, but rather Firth Park, which, despite its sometimes negative reputation felt like its own little multicultural island. Together with the interior of the home, full as it was of Mom’s buddhas, Dad’s Motown music, my older siblings love of foreign language cinema, there was colour amid the greyness of more monocultured surrounding areas.

Johny Pitts’ “Home is Not a Place” will be showing at the Graves Gallery until 24 December 2022. Johny Pits and Roger Robinson’s book “Home is Not a Place” will be published in October by Harper Collins.

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