Revisiting London’s East End During the ‘70s and ‘80s

Revisiting London’s East End During the ‘70s and ‘80s

Photographer Bandele ‘Tex’ Ajetunmobi spent five decades crafting an intimate portrait of the East End as seen through the eyes of a consummate insider.

In 1947, self-taught photographer Bandele ‘Tex’ Ajetunmobi (1921–1994) stowed away on a boat bound from Nigeria to Britain. After a post-polio disability rendered him estranged from his own community we was determined to build a new life for himself.

Ajetunmobi settled into East London amid a broad swath of émigrés from all across the Global South. Over the next five decades, he chronicled the world in which he lived, crafting an intimate portrait of the East End as seen through the perspective of a consummate insider.

Operating a market stall in Brick Lane placed Ajetunmobi at the nexus of street culture as it took root during the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, providing him with an unparalleled vantage point. Ajetunmobi’s work reveals a profound sense of solidarity among the working class, forged through the shared struggles and celebrations that are the marker of community.

“The postwar migratory story of Britain is often seen through the lens of conflicts, riots, and racists attacks, but a lot of the story is the everyday encounters where people work together and the relationships they have,” says Dr. Mark Sealy OBE, Executive Director of Autograph, who has curated the new online exhibition, Bandele ‘Tex’ Ajetunmobi: Street Scenes from the East End, 1950 – 1980.

“This is a time when things happening on the peripheral become the matrix of London,” Sealy says. “The working class are the frontline of diversity; the poor live side by side and have to get along. The undercurrent of Tex’s work is a city in transition.”

As chronicler of modern life, Ajetunmobi readily photographed friends and acquaintances he happened upon on the streets, pubs, and homes dotting Whitechapel, Stepney and Mile End, crafting a layered tapestry of East London life.

“There is a difference between someone arriving in a community and wanting to document it, and someone being in the community who happens to have an enthusiasm for the camera, and what it can do. The landscape is not something you go and discover, it's something that you're in. There’s a degree of intimacy that begins to reveal in image after image after image,” says Sealy.

“In many ways, this is a visual diary. I wouldn't say it's a documentary; it's more about this is what I'm seeing, and this is who we are. Sometimes people have an intuitive sense, like a musician, to build a rhythm of what's actually going on and it's not for profit or any kind of cultural gain. It's simply to speak to that place.”

Following Ajetunmobi’s death in 1994, most of his work was destroyed, save for some 200 negatives and camera equipment now in the collection of Autograph.

“I think the story of photography is not necessarily the story of the heroes that we know about,” Sealy says. “The story of photography is all of those people like texts, all of those cameras, all of those moments are those boxes under the bed, or those castaway images.”

Bandele ‘Tex’ Ajetunmobi: Street Scenes from the East End, 1950 – 1980 is on view online at Autograph in London.

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