From market stall traders to lovers in the dim-lit corners of members’ clubs, Bandele ‘Tex’ Ajetunmobi archived everyday moments of interracial intimacy in post-war East London.
When Bandele Ajetunmobi – widely known as ‘Tex’ – arrived in Spitalfields in 1947, he found himself at the epicentre of a multi-cultural, working-class society in flux.
After the Second World War, Britain’s economy was in ruins and sought to resolve its labour shortages by encouraging mass immigration from its corner colonies. As immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and India settled in London, the city became a dynamic melting pot of cross-cultural encounters.
Looking through Ajetunmobi’s archive, you can catch a glimpse of how changing communities learn to live, work and love alongside one another. The claustrophobia of working-class life was a gift to the self-taught photographer, who spent his days documenting the interracial intimacy blossoming around him.
From his market stall on Brick Lane, Ajetunmobi was in a prime position to capture everyday scenes of the East End. For Ajetunmobi, the street was his inspiration. Whether his neighbours were hard at work, lounging in leisure, or simply waiting for time to pass, Ajetunmobi identified complex drama and delicate beauty in the mundane.
Thousands of Ajetunmobi’s photographs were destroyed after his death, but his niece Victoria Loughran managed to salvage some two hundred negatives which are now part of Autograph’s collection of photography in Spitalfields.
While we may not ever be able to salvage the true extent of Ajetunmobi’s archive, the value of his contribution to British photography is undeniable. In a celebration of his achievements, Autograph has launched an open call, encouraging the public to submit event proposals inspired by Ajetunmobi’s work.
Little is known about Ajetunmobi before he arrived in London. At 26 years old, he stowed away on a boat from Lagos with his uncle Chris in search of new terrains. In Nigeria, he had experienced social isolation due to his disability, caused by having polio as a child.
But when he arrived in East London, it’s clear Ajetunmobi found a home. His photography was a profoundly social and local practice, spawned out of his joyful encounters with the evolving culture on the streets, pubs and shops around him.
A recurring presence in Ajetunmobi’s photography is that of interracial kinship, evident in the delicate embraces shared between young lovers and old friends that populate his archive. In this way, his work allows us to re-think the dominant narratives about racial intolerance in multi-cultural East London.
Mark Sealy, director of Autograph, said: ‘When you’re working class, you’re going to share these places, you’re going to share the pub, you’re going to share the factory job, you’re going to share the social conditions, you’re going to share the street, you’re going to share the public transport.
‘That story of all those little encounters where people come together is the making of multi-cultural Britain. Because wealth means that you’ve got more choices, you can ride in a taxi, you can sit in an exclusive hotel.
‘[His work] celebrates the fact that the working class were not all National Front or right-wing. They were people living cheek by jowl with new arrivals, and in many instances embracing those cultural differences. It upsets the narrative that people were living in separate ghettoised communities.’
As he photographed working-class Londoners at work on market stalls or socialising on street corners, Ajetunmobi captured the casual glamour of his neighbours. While they might have been economically deprived, his self-fashioning subjects are beautifully vivid, posing with attitude and authority towards the lens.
Most importantly, Ajetunmobi’s work disrupts the dominant archive of photography that has objectified people of colour since the camera’s invention in 1822. Alongside other post-war photographers like Ahmet Francis and Vanley Burke, Ajetunmobi documented the Black British community in moments defined by pleasure as opposed to pain.
Sealy said: ‘The history of photography hasn’t served the Black subject well. We do not see ourselves in time as being people who are capable of simply enjoying the moment.
‘When Tex and people like that come through, they show South Asian, Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities just being in their own time and place, without being under threat. I think that is really a massive contribution to the history of photography; that is why he is important.’
From families nestled together in the living room to old friends reuniting on a park bench, Ajetunmobi recorded his neighbours in moments of elation and genuine peace. Catching loved-ones off-guard in the raptures of joy, Ajetunmobi’s photography offers us a tender archive of Black life in post-war East London.
Autograph gallery are accepting event proposals until Monday 5 February. For more information and to view Ajetunmobi’s photography, visit Autograph.org.uk.
For more photography, read David Granick shows us the East End in Colour.
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