ART REVIEW: Andrea Luka Zimmerman – Civil Rites Installation @ Tyneside Cinema Gallery, Newcastle | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Andrea Luka Zimmerman

On November 14th 1967, Martin Luther King Jr made his acceptance speech for an honorary degree from Newcastle University. In it, King condemned prejudicial attitudes, poverty and war, which hinder our society’s progress. As a figurehead in the 1960s’ American Civil Rights movement, King advocated for non-violent techniques to bring about desegregation in the southern states and to legislate for equal civil and voting rights. But these issues, and the methods used to try and resolve them, are a drop in the ocean.

This winter, in response to this speech from Martin Luther King Jr’s, Tyneside Cinema’s artist in residence Andrea Luka Zimmerman explores the local movements which sought “passionately and unrelentingly” to eradicate social inequality through her film installation, Civil Rites.

It is a stunningly hypnotic and haunting take on the history of social protest in Newcastle, spanning almost 400 years of recorded protest from so many different areas of society.   

The first thing I noticed upon hearing about this installation was the spelling of its name, Civil Rites. It’s a subtle but important clue to uncovering the purpose behind Andrea’s art. It’s not just about wanting equality, it’s about what people have to do in order to achieve equality. Public demonstrations, boycotts, protests and propaganda all go hand in hand with the fight to achieve one’s aims, and they become a form of initiation into a new perspective on the world. Once you start to notice inequalities in society, it’s impossible to stop.

Andrea uses footage of areas of Newcastle in the present day which were sites for meetings, speeches and protests. Civil Rites shows the city of Newcastle and its surrounding area from dawn until dusk, using almost painfully mundane scenes of people going about their daily lives, oblivious to the breakthroughs made by people who once stood where they do today. It is a reminder of how much history is hidden from view, and social progress can be so easily hidden from view. These images are used as a backdrop for the film’s narrative: testimonies and thoughts from Newcastle inhabitants (some of whom contributed to movements), others who simply share their own experiences and feelings on such matters.

The opening shot shows the site of a bookshop base for Olaudah Equiano, where his Interesting Narrative would have been sold in the 1790s. Now, it is a square in the middle of the city, where council workers empty public bins in the dim morning light. The anti-slavery campaign in the eighteenth century was the first of its kind, and became the blueprint for pretty much every human rights campaign which followed. Equiano’s own contribution to this cause, was a form of propaganda to be reproduced and distributed in an effort to spread awareness for the anti-slavery cause. Civil Rites fits neatly alongside the Interesting Narrative; it gives a voice to the figures behind the campaigns who might otherwise be talked over or silenced.

The first voice to speak is that of an older gentleman, who mourns the sacrifice of Martin Luther King Jr for his own cause, and reminds us all to recognise the plight of our predecessors who gave their all to give us the society we have today:

“….if you don’t know your history, you feel like people are running circles around you.”

There is the acknowledgement that the world we live in today is by no means perfect, but knowing what came before us is imperative to knowing where to go from here.

Such evidence is essential from which to learn how society has progressed. Today, it’s too easy to take so much for granted: the right to vote, the right to a life free from torture, the right to marry the person you love. Yet, under the surface, social injustice continues for many people worldwide. It’s been little over half a century since the voting rights Martin Luther King Jr campaigned for were secured, and it hasn’t even been half a decade since same-sex marriage was legalised in the UK.

Andrea’s methodology relies heavily on listening to others’ viewpoints and perspectives, and that’s no bad thing. As part of the installation, the Tyneside hosted Guided Tour in December which provided the opportunity to visit some of the locations featured in the film, alongside feminist and anti-racist campaigners Pat Garrett and Rosie Lewis, and Andrea Luka Zimmerman herself. The experience was invaluable, as it gave further insight to Newcastle’s hidden history of protest and campaign. Locations of interest ranged from organised demonstrations, to squats and rape crisis centres, and were accompanied by personal stories from each participant.

this hypnotic, slow-paced film becomes a call to action, to keep fighting, and to carry on working towards transforming those “jangling discords of our nation, and of all the nations of the world, into a beautiful symphony.”

What really made this event successful was the openness of the discussion; anyone, invited guest or member of the general public, was welcome to participate at any point should they have a contribution. Opinions were respected, but not necessarily unchallenged. This experience facilitated interactivity and discussion with people who had hands-on experience and perspective, just as Civil Rites offers insight into the lives of people from every walk of life. This guided walk was especially interesting to me as a history graduate, as it told stories not necessarily recorded by historians at the time. It is so important to ensure that the stories told by these campaigners are not forgotten, for fear that we cannot learn from them.

Civil Rites is a reminder of how far we have come as a society, but also how much there is still left to do. The transatlantic slave trade has long since been abolished, yet human trafficking continues to this day. Same-sex marriage is being legalised in an increasing number of countries, yet being homosexual still carries the death penalty in others. People continue to be persecuted in the UK based on the colour of their skin, their gender and their sexual orientation.

Martin Luther King Jr’s methodology for bringing about change was to raise awareness of social injustices and inequality, through speeches and demonstrations. Social issues are a reality for many people across the globe. Problems in the North East of England may not have been exactly the same as the plight of African Americans in the USA, and they may not have been addressed in the same manner or confronted using the same tactics, but they do share a key characteristic in common: all were met with efforts to overcome inequalities for a brighter, fairer future.

Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s film works to compile the efforts of other campaigners, in turn becoming a campaign itself to raise awareness for a whole host of issues. Paradoxically, this hypnotic, slow-paced film becomes a call to action, to keep fighting, and to carry on working towards transforming those “jangling discords of our nation, and of all the nations of the world, into a beautiful symphony.”

Find out more about Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s film installation, which is at Tyneside Cinema’s Gallery until Monday 22nd January, including opening times, photos from the panel discussion and an audio recording from the guided walk by clicking here.

For more events commemorating fifty years since Dr Martin Luther King Jr visited the North East, and to watch a recording of his speech at Newcastle University, visit http://freedomcity2017.com.

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