L8 Unseen runs at the Museum of Liverpool from 3 April to 6 September. It is a collection of striking images taken by photographer Othello de’Souza-Hartley. The pictures are all blown up to a large scale and rich in detail. Each one features someone or some group of people who live in Liverpool 8 pictured inside a building that reflects the history of Liverpool. The poster used to advertise the exhibition, and reproduced above for instance, shows Cherise Smith of the Tiber Young People’s Steering Group in the boardroom of the Liver Building.
There are also interactive elements in the exhibition in which you can listen to personal stories and send in your own photographs to add to the story. This has been incredibly successful and over 2,500 people have sent in their own photographs in the first weeks of the exhibition.
The blurb for the exhibition declares that “Liverpool 8 is a state of mind, an idea, a culture, rather than just a geographical location”. This identity is based upon diversity, something that is rooted in Liverpool’s development from the eighteenth century onwards as a major seaport that brought so many peoples and cultures to its streets. But in this also lies the downside – Liverpool’s prosperity was based, from the opening of its first dock in the early eighteenth century until 1807, on the slave trade and so the exhibition notes that many of the places used “were founded on the proceeds of the city’s international trading links and the slave trade.” This is undoubtedly true – even for buildings like the Liver Building, built as late as the twentieth century – for without that era of massive expansion when Liverpool became the pre-eminent slave ship port the continued advancement of the Victorian era and later would not have happened. This reprehensible trade carried on by so many people in Liverpool for a hundred years brought tremendous riches and provided the backbone of the city’s prosperity. So the buildings used include the Town Hall, The Black-E arts centre (which was once Great George Street Congregational Church), the Liver Building, a house in Abercomby Square, dock buildings, the Athenaeum Club and other places. There is no getting away from the fact that virtually the whole city was effectively complicit in a vicious trade but I can’t help feeling that somewhere like the Athenaeum perhaps indicates a slightly different attitude, after all it included amongst its founding members William Roscoe and his circle, people who opposed the slave trade from the start and were eventually successful in getting it stopped. We shouldn’t overlook the courage of people like Roscoe who stood out against the prevailing orthodoxy at the time.
My favourite photograph shows four religious leaders from places of worship in Liverpool 8, generally from near the top of Princes Avenue. Seated around a table in the Town Hall are representatives of the Al Taiseer Mosque, Princes Road Synagogue. St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and St Margaret’s Church of England, all resplendent in liturgical garb. One hopes that this gathering represents some sort of on-going dialogue between the different faiths rather than just a gathering for a photo opportunity. At least two of the religious buildings that they represent are amongst the grandest and most impressive buildings in the city and Liverpool, of course, had the first mosque ever built in England. What a shame the nearby Welsh Presbyterian Church, itself something of a mini-cathedral, is now gone, then they could have had a sober Presbyterian in preaching bands and black cassock join the group too. But the building has been derelict for years and the original congregation left in the 1970s. That illustrates one aspect of diversity which has almost entirely disappeared in Liverpool. When I was young the city was dotted with Welsh speaking churches, now I think just one small chapel remains. Sad to note the disappearance of this group, although even in Wales the types of churches that they comprised are nowhere near as prevalent as they once were.
But it is an illuminating exhibition that reflects the resilience and the vitality of Toxteth/Liverpool 8. As Laurence Westgraph says in his notes accompanying the exhibition “what is the culture of L8? Maybe it is the culture of accepting, tolerating and welcoming people from other cultures.”