The Imperial War Museum in South London is staging its latest contemporary show focusing on the 1980s anti-nuclear movement in Britain, as seen through the lense of the photographer Edward Barber. Bringing together over 40 photographs, the exhibition reinterprets the body of work Barber created while documenting some of the key protests at sites throughout the country, including RAF Greenham Common, Trafalgar Square and Westminster.
These works are unique social documents that reshape our current understanding of the political climate with regards to nuclear disarmament – a hot topic ever since the Cold War, and one currently in the media thanks to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who is a staunch campaigner against the UK’s Trident Nuclear submarine programme that has just been green lighted for refurbishment by the Conservative government.
First published in 1984, the powerful photographs were originally intended to gain media attention to the protests. The images are forms of self-expression that illuminate the activist’s creativity and emotion. They starkly display both a collective and individual response to the effects of war. They capture the often overlooked aspects of theatre, fashion, folk-art and music that grew around the nucleus of peace-camps. They also examine the role of women in these protests, documenting the ground-breaking female-only camp at RAF Greenham Common, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.
Barber’s images were initially published in left wing newspapers The Observer and The Guardian before touring as a collection and being published in a book in 1984. They are often tender and sometimes humorous, dismantling the violence that they address. They feel resonate with passion and show a decidedly British way of doing things. They address a theme that resonates with audiences just as much now as it did then, and help to highlight the disparity between war and politics. The organised chaos of the images convey a sense of mischief in the the civil action, amongst the scantily clad women, children holding toys and fancy dress outfits. The show contains no labels offering a time or place, establishing the works as a unified historic voice, in effect evoking the spirit of an era. The canary yellow glow of the gallery walls emits a radioactive like glow, yet also a calming presence of peace amongst the preventative images. The wit and candidness of the images is something Martin Parr would be proud of, and the photos beg the question of the audience “do you care this much about world peace?”.
The Imperial War Museum is shaking off its old image of cabinets of 20th century war artefacts and this latest offering from its art curatorial department helps secure its place as a museum concerned as much with progress as it is with history.
Edward Barber: Peace Signs at the Imperial War Museum, London, 26 May – 4 September 2016.