Interview: John Peter Askew | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Photos by John Peter Askew

John Peter Askew is an artist that uses his camera to bring the world to you. He studied at Sunderland University and after the fall of the Berlin Wall travelled the length and breadth of Europe to to photograph the similarities between Eastern and Western sides of the continent. In the 1990s he travelled to Pern in Russia there, he saw and photographed a way of life that was not about the endless grind of making money, but one where ordinary life was dignified, and people treated each other with respect.

His exhibition, We brings together a full twenty years of photographs made in Russia.  It previews on Friday 14 June (6 – 8pm) and opens 15 June – 18 August 2019 at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art at National Glass Centre, Sunderland. We asked John a few questions to find out more about his exhibition.

How did you get into photography?
My first camera was a 21st birthday present from my father. A Pentax MX. Sometimes presents can be things that you don’t really like or want but I remember treasuring this. I remember taking some photos of the steep steps in Newcastle leading down to the quayside. At home, I made a picture of a floral patterned waste bin in a flowerbed. There was also one of my mum and dad in bed on Christmas morning. It didn’t come out quite right as the light got into the back of the camera and distorted the colours. That fascinated me. My father was drinking a cup of tea while my mother read from a book by Alison Uttley. My dad was half in and half out of the light.
How does it feel returning to Sunderland?
My work is often built around friendships and I’m looking forward to returning to Sunderland to work with Alistair Robinson to bring together the project that we have been working towards for the last 3 years. We first met 17 years ago when he visited my London studio and we’ve remained in contact ever since. It’s wonderful to return to the city where I studied for four years. It was a great period of expansion for me as a mature student becoming aware of art and how it could be a force for the good. Paying attention to the peculiarities of the world and ultimately hoping to change it for the better.
Why did the focus of your work switch to Europe in the 1990’s?
As a young man reading Economics at Manchester University I was drawn to studying  the Soviet Union. What absorbed me more than the workings of a command economy were my daydreams about the enchantment of snow.

I was then  given the opportunity to travel after being awarded a Northern Arts travel and training grant to exhibit my work and attend s residency in Perm, the easternmost city in Europe. Before then I had hardly travelled outside the north east of Britain and it opened me up to the enormous possibilities that travelling can offer and how it changes and deepens your perception of the world.
What is the real Russia like in comparison to how it is portrayed via the media?
Often Russia is portrayed in quite a grim, dark and negative way but I have found  it a place full of beauty, friendship and warmth. With people who often have a closer and more nuanced relationship to nature and life than we have here.
You befriended an ordinary Russian family called the Chulakovs, and many of these photographs feature the multiple generations of that family together. How did you meet?
Giorgi Chulakov was a senior member of the family and partner in an electronics repair firm in Perm and though we had never met he  supported my exhibition in the city. He paid for my train ticket to and from Moscow, printed the advertising posters for the show and for much of my month in Perm invited me to stay with his family to learn about the city. There wasn’t a lot of money around then, as it was only five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, so I knew this was a significant gesture. It was a gesture of faith – faith in the importance of art and friendship and in what photography can promise.
Do you have any favourites in this exhibition?
All my photographs are like children to me with there own peculiarities and possibilities so having a favourite would seem to be wrong.

Every photograph in the exhibition is surrounded by stories but I want them to exist in there own right as a stilled moment of looking. I trust the photographs to tell a truth.
But if I was to talk about one…
One of the photographs depicts Sasha, the middle sister, sitting by the kitchen table with the family cat in a box on her lap. Murik has just fallen six floors from a window ledge onto the ground below in a misguided leap to catch a passing pigeon. Look closely and you can see his nose is bloodied and flecks of blood have spotted the cardboard. The cat still lives to this day with the aid of a metal pin in its leg. The picture reminds me of another story and one which drew me to the Chulakovs. The photograph on page …  shows Giorgi on my first visit to his home  sharing with me a video of an extraordinary family summer holiday a few years before.  I recently shared this memory with Lyuba and she remembers my first visit  too and recalls that we were eating pine nuts that they had collected the previous summer. The video documents how Giorgi, his wife Valya and their four young children together with two other families had hired a helicopter to take them to a remote and distant region of the northern Urals inaccessible by road. Deposited at their destination they built rafts and travelled down the River Koiva for two weeks getting the helicopter to pick them up again at a pre-arranged spot. What was most extraordinary to me about this expedition was they took their cat, Murka with them. A dainty, small, white cat. Moreover they lived on the sixth floor of an apartment block and the cat until that trip had never been outside. Not once, it was a house cat. The video shows the cat sitting independently and contentedly on an open raft with the family and their dog drifting down a river in the middle of a vast pristine natural landscape. The cat loved the trip. It loved its taste of adventure so much that upon their return it kept trying to escape from the apartment. On its first successful attempt it was found a few days later by a neighbour half a kilometre away at the local market. Murka escaped a second time and was never seen again. 

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