Taking Place at the Gallery at Foyles: homelessness through the lens

Smooth jazz floods the room while people sit on their laptops, read a book, or drink a coffee with a friend, The Gallery at Foyles seems like a strange context for the work Taking Place by artist Anthony Luvera. However, that juxtaposition feels important, since the whole point of this exhibition is to raise awareness for the homelessness crisis in the United Kingdom.

The work was produced in conjunction with the Museum of Homelessness, and supported by Coventry University. The exhibition contains two separate works from the artist, curated by Chloe Stagaman of Future City Blog, the first is Assembly, where the artist taught people experiencing homelessness to create their own imagery and worked with them to make assisted self-portraits, portraits that were created with the assistance of the artist. While Luvera worked with multiple people, he only exhibits images from and of the ten willing to participate.

The second, Frequently Asked Questions, began as an effort to provide information to help people experiencing homelessness during the first showing of Assembly in Brighton,but when Luvera and co-collaborator Gerald Mclaverty emailed a series of questions to 110 councils, very few endeavored to answer the questions, with many only sending automatic replies. Luvera now displays this ongoing work in a series of infographics ranging from 2014–2019 with the email responses printed out in binders nearby. This exhibition aims to educate the viewer on the systemic issues surrounding homelessness and to allow for a change in the perspective of those experiencing it as actual people.

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With these assisted self-portraits and the fact that the artist worked with people experiencing homelessness instead of simply photographing them, this exhibition turns representation on its head. Traditionally, photographic depictions of people experiencing homelessness include people sleeping rough on the streets and people in destitute situations, Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange and Raymond Depardon’s depictions of the Glaswegian slums in the 1980s for example. While these images had their place, they also alienated the people in them, starting a trope of depicting people experiencing homelessness in this way. Luvera aims to change this.

By using a ‘socially-engaged practice,’ he works with the people in order to ‘actively involve them in the process of telling stories,’ he recently told Professor Roger Kneebone in a podcast about his artistic process. This exhibition seems to do a very good job doing this since one onlooker said, ‘You usually just think of people sleeping on the side of the street, you don’t think of anything else, this sort of makes you look more at them as people.’ The photographs exhibited in this show the participants as people living their lives. With images that show friends hanging out, of newspapers strewn across an empty street, of swans in a lake, these are image that any one of us would take, it highlights the participants as people in a way that typically has not been done before.

The photographic eye has never been a neutral one, with the photographer’s own prejudices and preferences influencing every image they take. Anthony Luvera plays with this power concept in his assisted self-portraits, since he focuses on the fact that he is working with an individual, as he mentioned to the audience of his private view on Monday, January 12th, instead of as homeless people. As one person who attended told me, ‘the assisted self-portrait gives them agency, it allows them to be more human, I guess.’ The aims of his art manage to find a good foothold within people’s minds and encourages them to think more on the subject, gaining awareness of the systemic issues of the homelessness crisis in the process.

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Currently the crisis has an estimate of over 280,000 people in England experiencing homelessness according to some research undertaken by the charity Shelter in December 2019. Despite recent legislation, theHomelessness Reduction Act, created to help reduce or end homelessness in the last year, the data found in Frequently Asked Questions proved dismal. The brightly colored infographics draw you in and encourage you to investigate the legitimacy of helpfulness promised by said legislation. At the opening for this exhibition, Luvera told the audience that he was using these projects to challenge the preconceptions that come when discussing homelessness. This exhibition highlights the current sociological issues that England is facing and challenges its viewers to step up, in a beautiful and engaging way.

Taking Place will be open from 13 January, 2020 to 29 February, 2020 at The Gallery at Foyles 107 Charing Cross Road.

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