Birkbeck art exhibition explores collaborative and radical work of ‘cultural sniper’ Jo Spence

The late British photographer Jo Spence's life will be celebrated through an archive of works, as featured in a new exhibition at the Peltz Gallery.

An archive of activist art, radical publications and photography from renowned British artist Jo Spence will open at the Peltz Gallery next month, as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of Birkbeck’s History of Art Department.

Cultural Sniping: Photographic Collaborations in the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive showcases important materials from the archive of Spence’s work as a photographer, writer, and self-described ‘cultural sniper’.

Consistent with Spence’s ethos of radical teaching practices, this exhibition focuses on her collaborative working methods; displaying books, magazines, journals, collages, photographs, posters, pamphlets, notes, letters and props that provide insights into Spence’s methods and the culture, politics and activism informing them.

On display are works made in association with Spence’s collaborators, including the late Terry Dennett who sadly passed away this month, and Rosy Martin. The exhibition showcases a range of materials from the Photography Workshop community project she founded with Dennett, to the Polysnappers, a group with whom she worked while a mature student.

These pieces illustrate how the artists used photography to interrogate dominant representations of labour, class, race, gender and sexuality, encouraging political and social change through education. 

The exhibition is curated by Dr Patrizia Di Bello, a lecturer in history and theory of photography in Birkbeck’s History of Art Department, researcher Dr Frances Hatherley and a group of Birkbeck students. The exhibition is supported by a generous grant from Birkbeck Alumni Fund and is part of Birkbeck's Opening up Art History 50th anniversary celebrations.

Appropriately for Birkbeck, life-long learning was crucial to Spence, who encouraged others to engage in visual critiques and consciousness-raising projects based on their own life experiences. Spence and her collaborator Martin pioneered ‘phototherapy’, working through themes of working-class identity and stigmatisation, sexuality, grief and illness, using photography in an empowering and transformative way. 

As Spence wrote in her autobiography Putting Myself in the Picture: “We must learn to see beyond ourselves and the stereotypes offered, to understand the invisible class and power relationships into which we are structured from birth.”

Cultural Sniping: Photographic Collaborations in the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive opens at The Peltz Gallery from 9 March – 28 April.

Screenings and workshops will run alongside the exhibition and a private viewing and reception will be held on 9 March.

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