Ronan McKenzie is hoovering when I arrive at Blank100, a Hackney arts space, looking regal in a high-necked navy jumpsuit. It’s an action which is emblematic – both of the cosy, intimate warmth of the new show she has created, I’M HOME, and of the personal levels of commitment with which the photographer and curator has approached every aspect of the event.
I’M HOME showcases the work of four black British female photographers – Liz Johnson Artur, Joy Gregory, Rhea Dillon and Ronan McKenzie herself – and explores themes of identity and belonging.
“It’s just really rare that I see the work of black female photographers,” she says, “And if I do, I find it’s always pointed out. I wanted to create a space where the works wouldn’t need to be singled out in that way. Home and family is more binding than race or gender. Obviously we’re all black British females, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we (or our work) will have anything in common.”
Ronan, who grew up nearby in Walthamstow, speaks evocatively about what home means to her. “Home means so many different things for different people,” she says. “For me it’s the way my Mum’s neck smells, and my sister’s cheeks. It’s my Dad bundling all our scooters into the car. There are so many things that the word home brings up – I wanted to see what the word meant to everybody else.”
I’M HOME is a show which embodies its theme through its physical set-up. Designers Sandra Falase and Rochelle White have created a set of homely interiors – with recipes on the wall, books to flick through, comfy spots to lounge in and vivid green houseplants absolutely everywhere. Much of the work on show is integrated into the setting, presented in the style of household artworks or family snaps in frames. “We’ve got drinks (though the space itself is alcohol free) and people can just hang out,” says Ronan. “Chill, read something, play the piano.”
With this curation, McKenzie hopes to make the space as welcoming and open as possible. “I feel with a lot of arts institutions it’s not really a space where you can feel comfortable enough to sit down or touch things or engage with the space,” she says. “I think that’s a really important element in making arts accessible.”
The domestic stylings of the show also add atmospheric extra dimensions to the works on display. Dillon’s series Sunday Best, for example, depicting the photographer’s Grandma dressed in her church finery every Sunday, is housed in a corner decorated with the older woman’s real possessions. Her handbag and hat are carefully balanced on an armchair, while a 1977 Silver Jubilee Bible lies on a side table. It’s these imaginative and moving touches that give the show a powerful and immersive quality.
While Dillon has photographed her Grandmother, Ronan is showing several intimate and heartening images of her ‘Mamu’ (Mum.) In a show which mingles the work of established artists Johnson Artur and Gregory with younger talent, there’s an important emphasis on age-blended connections and relationships.
“I think it’s really essential to have inter-generational conversations,” says Ronan. “My Mum’s a really big part of my work, and I have friends and mentors older than I am. That’s really important to me, and it’s really helped me to see my work from different perspectives. I wanted to create a space where work from people who had been working for 20 or 30 years could sit next to newer artists.”
If McKenzie has an aim for I’M HOME, it’s to spark conversation between strangers. Not least with an inventive series of associated events – from supper clubs and photography workshops, to life drawing and an introduction to tarot. “I want people to have an interaction with somebody they haven’t met before,” she says. “Even if you don’t speak to someone, I want you to feel like you could.”
It sounds as if the journey towards I’M HOME has been a labour of very personal love. “It took me the best part of this year to find a space, because everything is so expensive, and I don’t have funding from anyone,” says Ronan. “I’ve had help with certain things, but essentially the bones of it has been me. I’m so proud of it, and so proud that people are enjoying it.”
Fittingly, I’M HOME supports a charity that’s close to home, Hackney Quest, which has been supporting young people and families in the area for three decades. Though general admission is free, tickets for events within the space cost just over a fiver – and you can choose whether to reclaim your fee, or donate it to the charity.
“To make the space accessible, I want people to know that if they want or need that money back they can have it. But otherwise it goes to a really great local charity. My Dad’s from Hackney, my Mum spent a long time here, and I’m from just up the road. What I love about this show is that it’s helping the area that it’s sitting in.”
I’M HOME runs until November 4.