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Meet The Artist: Fraser James and Franklyn Rodgers

Meet The Artist: Fraser James and Franklyn Rodgers

Actor Fraser James and visual artist and photographer Franklyn Rodgers are the duo behind charity UNDEREXPOSED ARTS and one of South East London’s biggest cultural exports: the affectionately named ‘Peckham Portraits’.  

Originally a 2008 National Portrait Gallery exhibition titled ‘UNDEREXPOSED’, the series of 30 photographs of some of Britain’s brightest Black actors, including Idris Elba, Ashley Walters and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, soon found a long-term home on Peckham Hill Street and Commercial Street, where they lived for over nine years, becoming an integral part of the community.

To celebrate the launch of UNDEREXPOSED ARTS ‘The Peckham Portraits’ going on display across the W1 Curates screens that wrap the walls of FLANNELS’ flagship London store, we sat down with Fraser and Franklyn to understand the origins of the portraits, their long-lasting legacy, and their plans for the future.

  

Where did the idea for 'The Peckham Portraits' originate from?

Fraser: I was at home one day listening to Radio 5 Live and there was a morning talk show where they had people calling in. The premise of that show was that there was a reason why there was low achievement for Black school leavers and violence in the Black community, and it was because there was a lack of Black role models. And I was listening to it, thinking ‘what utter nonsense.’ I’m an actor and I’d just finished doing a series called Baby Father, and I was thinking from the director to the sound recorders to all the artists on the project, there were a fair few role models there. And then we got nominated for an award that year, so I went to the Grosvenor Park Hotel on Park Lane and I just remember standing in that ballroom – everyone in DJs – and I flashed back to that radio show and them saying we didn’t have Black role models. I thought ‘how dare they suggest we don’t have Black role models?’ We have them, they may not be as visible, they may not be as exposed in the way they are in the States for example, but they’re in existence. So, in that moment I decided I was going to do a photographic exhibition to introduce some people that I know and that I consider to be role models. That’s really where it started.


What did you hope to achieve with the portraits?

Fraser: The idea really simply was just to say: here are some artists, this is their name and here’s a ‘Gem of Knowledge’ from each of them. Something that’s important to them. We launched everything in 2008 and let it go out there and came back to it again in 2018. I thought 10 years later: how’s it impacted the community? We were just amazed. I spoke to one actor who just blew my mind: John Boyega. And he said: "Fraser, I used to walk past these images every day and I can’t remember when I was inspired to be an actor, but I know it was because of these." That’s the best we can hope for: to see a representation of yourself reflected in the community, and it gives you strength because all these portraits standing together - there’s a strength in that. That was something that Frank was determined should happen.

Franklyn: One thing collectively that we believe as an organisation, UNDEREXPOSED ARTS, is that it’s not just what the work is but it’s what the work does. The one thing about the portraits that really resonated, was the passing of time. This is the longest running public art installation/photographic exhibition that’s existed in London. And not just the longest, but that has also been maintained by the community. In 2011 when there were the riots, I remember thinking to myself, ‘you know what? It’s going to be trashed’. There was helicopter footage of things burning in Peckham, I remember sitting watching the TV and this helicopter flew past and it was completely untouched.


That’s incredible. Why do you think they resonated so much?         

Franklyn: One of the key things about my practise as an artist is about understanding; not just who we are, where we are, but when we are; and how those things interwoven can actually help us create another platform for engagement. And also, a platform where we can actually develop an open dialogue around how we can shift representation. One of the important things about having all of the images together – when you look at amazing art of the saints and you look at the churches from all cultures, often you see all the deities are put together. To have that together collectively says something about a group of people standing together, and not just standing together but talking together, because the ‘Gems of Knowledge’ anchored those images. It was inspirational.



The portraits now sit permanently on the exterior of Mountview Theatre School in Peckham, back in the site of their original home. Why is this so important and what’s next for UNDEREXPOSED ARTS?

Franklyn: If you can see yourself on the building, you can see yourself in the building.

Fraser: It empowers you, which is what we’re about. This year we became a charity and we’re looking at the programme and we’re going to do the next generation [of portraits] next year and we’ve got another project in the works. So we’re just doing work that focuses on representation and identity and if we can, as Frank says, facilitate aspiration from people who have seen our work, then that’s it in a nutshell.

And now they’re going to be exhibited on Britain’s biggest shopping street. How does that feel?

Frasers: If we can arrest someone’s progress through Oxford Street with a striking image and get them to stop briefly and think ‘what is that’. If they can engage with it and seek to find out more about it – and hopefully they will – because of Frank’s images.

Franklyn: There’s a language attached to portraiture and that language is often embedded in when portraiture began, or people began to engage with photography and portraiture, and that was around the Pre-Raphaelites. So, you realise that even when you look at most photographs, the engagement is based around that pivotal aesthetic moment. So, what I thought I’d do, why not shift that moment and look at developing aesthetics that work outside that? I loved the idea of African masks and what that means to create lines on the face. In African culture, what those marks allude to are rites of passage and status. So, I thought wouldn’t it be amazing to use that way of thinking and attach it to the portrait. An actor engages with a role and gives life to those words and creates a space where we can connect with an emotion and that visceral nature of what it is to make that translation. I thought wouldn’t it be amazing if we could create an aesthetic, so rather than playing a role and that role is often a mask that is donned, I said: ‘what if you wear your own mask?’ What if that mask actually belonged to you? So, all the masks and the lines create and connect to that African aesthetic, but rather than actually leaving the mark, the mark is made in light. Each person when they leave a sitting, they become part of the UNDERXPOSED tribe.

Fraser: It’s an audience that hasn’t seen them before. An international audience that won’t have seen them before. These ‘Gems of Knowledge’ and how they support the portraits is key as well.

The ‘Gems of Knowledge’ really give the portraits a voice…

Franklyn: It empowers across the board. Those 'Gems of Knowledge', being able to read and be inspired from that, is such a powerful thing. To see this icon but think I can also hear what they have to say about overcoming. What does it take to overcome? Some of those quotes shift how you think about circumstances that you may be in.

Fraser: My 'Gem' at the time was: ‘There is no deodorant for desperation.’ That was based on my current instruction for myself before I went into an audition because I would say to myself: ‘Don’t be desperate. You can’t be desperate, you have to be cool, you have to breathe, you have to play things nice and easy.’ My ‘Gem of Knowledge’ to myself now would be: ‘Don’t be afraid to be great.’ I know what I can deliver as an experienced artist of over 30 years now. When I come onto a film set, I know what I’m capable of. So now it’s just a question of how good can you be? It’s not a question of can you deliver it and whether or not you need to be concerned about being desperate in a room, it’s how great can you be in any one moment?




How do you feel about your art mixing with fashion?

Franklyn: What I feel quite inspired about this space is that it’s redefining how we can connect, and the space itself is redefining how we connect to images on the high street. I think this is such a maverick space. We’re so used to a visual language in this space. It’s almost a given; alright we’re on the high street, the images I’ll be seeing will be selling to me. But to come on the street and to think this isn’t selling to me, this is actually empowering me. I think by shifting how you can feel about space, means you can shift how you can feel about the experience of shopping. 

 

What does fashion mean to you?

Fraser: I like things I can wear casually at home, but I like things that are statement pieces, that make you feel. Frankly as an actor it’s natural; you’re constantly getting into costume. I’ll walk into the studio and I can build a character from being in a costume. I enjoy wearing a costume, so it’s natural that you look for nice pieces that make you feel good. 

Franklyn: Fashion is also about how you feel and having colours that can resonate or pick up your skin tone or reflect a certain mood, I think it’s really important. As an artist working in a lens-based medium, one thing that I’m always aware of is light. I love the idea of light and colours. When you have this colourful palette, as a fashion statement, those colours resonate, and they connect to certain things in our world. Fashion is an extension of who we’re supposed to be, so when you embrace it, and you embrace it in a really interesting way, it means that it’s not just empowering you but it’s connecting you to the universe.  

And what does the future hold for UNDEREXPOSED ARTS? Do you still have the same impetuses?

Fraser: I feel like there can never be enough desire to add a reference point in our history so that people of colour can see themselves represented and think: ‘That is empowering me. Seeing that image is empowering me. Reading that ‘Gem of Knowledge’ is empowering me.’ So I don’t really feel like there will ever be a time when we don’t need to be doing what we’re doing.

Franklyn: Sometimes in London we live in a bubble and we think it’s great, but then you realise collectively across the country and across the globe, we can’t just see ourselves in isolation. We have to see ourselves in relation to the larger dialogue that’s happening.

Fraser: There’s absolutely still space for us to continue to infiltrate different spaces, like this one, where an image, a positive representation, can reflect and empower someone. We’re down for continuing this for the long game.

UNDEREXPOSED ARTS: 'The Peckham Portraits' will be on display at FLANNELS London until 1 November 2020.