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Johny Pitts Photographer curates a “porous threshold” in Graves Gallery exhibition

The artist speaks to Now Then about his creative relationship to Sheffield – and the importance of bringing his culture to gallery space.

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Johny Pitts and Roger Robinson’s exhibition “Home is Not a Place” is a carefully curated exploration of comfort, safety, and home. Sheffield-born Pitts spoke to Now Then after a launch event at the Graves Galley and an Off the Shelf event.

One thing is for sure, the exhibition is so inviting that it urges a second, third, and fourth viewing. I spoke to the photographer about his influences and relationship to Sheffield:

I kept thinking of my central maxim, something that Toni Morrison once said in an interview, ‘I stand at the edge, I stand at the border, and I claim it as central’. And so this journey was the coast, a strange journey, bad weather, looking for these fragments of Black history and experiences.

Johny’s words call to mind those of Sengalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembéne’s discussion of the white gaze:

Sembéne said:

Let’s be very clear - Europe is not my centre. Europe is on the outskirts…I myself am the sun!

Sembéne and Pitts’ words will be familiar to racialised people who constantly engage with the spectre of the white gaze. Pitts’ work is itself a re-making of that gaze – his exhibition is assembled as a celebration by, of, and for Black British people.

Speaking to Johny

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Johny Pitt speaks at the launch of his exhibition at the Graves Gallery

What was the launch event like for you?

It was amazing to see so many people that I recognised from my own community there. And I love to hear what people pick up on because it was this really interesting mix of art world people, like curators, and people that like photography, and then there were people that I grew up with. It was really interesting to hear some of the observations which might not have been, ‘Oh, I can see the influence of such and such a photographer,’ it was more like ‘Oh, I remember having those curtains,’ or ‘I remember that washing machine in the flip albums.’

It’s little things like that where I could see a possibility of bringing an audience in to engage with photography that aren't usually asked to engage in photography.

There’s a mix of people you’ve photographed in the exhibition looking directly at the camera, and others are going about their day, and some look past the camera. Was that intentional? How did you grapple with gaze within the theme of home, and spaces that feel like home?

A lot of the photographs are people who I know personally, and what I'm trying to do there is to get a little bit of distance from that so I can create this kind of poetic interplay. I need to almost create… not strangers from people I know, but I need a little bit of distance. Then sometimes, if it's somebody that I don't know, then I'm doing the opposite. I'm trying to create familiarity, where we see each other. And even though we don't know each other, there's this moment.

That's something that I think is prevalent in my work that I didn't necessarily think about as I was making the work. It's only afterwards where you see that these are these parallels. I think that's one of the great things about showing work and collaborating and then having the people you took photographs of see the work as well.

What was the process of putting this together? It must have been quite intense.

It was intense. When I got the opportunity to put the work in a gallery space, there were a bunch of things that we wanted, and the first thing was that it was free. And the second thing was that anybody who is from an area like mine, or has gone through a certain amount of trauma, that they can find consolation and comfort in the space. So not only did I want to find a home for the images, but I wanted to find a home for my community in the gallery space.

Perhaps some people at Graves Gallery might think that I was being pedantic or I was being difficult or something, but there were certain things that I really wanted to fight for. The atmosphere was so important, like the beaded curtains. People might have thought I was being really overly dramatic about the importance of having the beaded curtains. To me, it’s connected to so many homes that I've spent time in. And that just suggests comfort.

In an ideal world, I wanted the beaded curtains to be down, I didn't want them tied up. I wanted to create a kind of threshold, a porous threshold between all the rooms. But because of health and safety, we weren't allowed to do that. But yeah, all these little details were important to make sure that anybody who comes into the space, who is from a place that I'm from, that they could feel very comfortable in that space. That was the most important thing.

What has the reaction been from your family and friends? Or people that you grew up with? And people you’ve photographed?

I think there is, especially for my family, it's quite surreal for them in a certain way. I wanted to show that we had culture, and our lives were full of art, but it just wasn't the art that is celebrated usually in this country. We managed to make home and culture out of these fragments, sometimes out of not very much money, but we were creative. I wanted to celebrate that in a space.

I think it takes a while for people to digest it all. With my mom, she'll keep going back to the space and she'll look at it and take in. It takes a while to comprehend.

I think all the photographs, the way I take photographs, and the way I make work in general is pretty slow. Roger Robinson talks about this notion of ‘does it bear repeating?’ So he talks about how you might get a poem that seems amazing, or a photograph that does everything, but you're looking at it once and the sparkle is there but there's nothing deeper than that. You look at it and think ‘wow, that's an amazing photograph,’ but you don't necessarily want to look at it again.

I think what we were trying to do is make a slow work where perhaps, you know, there isn't much dazzle there or it might be a half moment or just a shadow but there's something about it that just makes you want to go back and look at it again and spend time with it. And because it’s been a lot of work that took a long time to make then hopefully it takes a long time to fully appreciate, and it keeps drawing you in.

One of the big concerns is should something like this, this culture, even be in a gallery? I think it should be, because galleries are resources, and they’re local amenities.You have to try and make it as comfortable and as casual as possible, in my opinion, if you're going to take this culture that has so often been neglected by the gallery, you're gonna put that in a gallery, you have to make it a living breathing space.

The exhibition mentions how you grew up here and then moved away. What was it like to assemble this exhibition in Sheffield?

It was great, and very interesting to be working in Sheffield. Especially the weeks where we were installing the work. I used to work in the stockroom of a clothes shop that was just around the corner - I think it's a bank now. And it was really interesting, all the places are still there, the places that I used to have lunch. And it would be really weird for me to have a break from the gallery and go to the spot where 15 years ago I'd be having my lunch break.

I was wrong for thinking this, but I suppose I never associated Sheffield with a creative career. There was my life in Sheffield, and then the bright lights of London where I had to go if I wanted to do anything that was creative.

When I knew that I had this urge to do something creative, for me, it was like ‘I have to leave Sheffield and go to London to make it happen’.

During this exhibition, it was bringing the two together. It was like bringing the creativity that I've honed in London, but also appreciating that, actually, all of the creativity that surrounded me growing up in Sheffield, especially in Firth Park, was really powerful.

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