Red Saunders is a political artist. In 1976 he was one of the founders of Rock Against Racism, an organisation based on the simple premise that racism was wrong and that, through music, good people could come together to oppose it. It worked, and was part of a tremendous wave of grass roots activism which undermined the growth of the National Front, particularly among young people.
In his new exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, Saunders has taken on another fight: to seek to represent the struggles of working class people across the centuries that have been Hidden. Saunders took the title from socialist historian Sheila Rowbotham’s ground breaking womens’s history book, Hidden from History.
He uses photography to remind people about the radicals and revolutionaries who were part of the history of the growth of democracy in this country. There are few, if any, images of many of these people, so Saunders has created tableaux with real people to represent a number of key radical episodes in our country’s history. He says: “my hope is that these images can give new life to these important episodes of working people’s history”.
Feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, is pictured in Stoke Newington with her friends and comrades. There are only a few portraits of Wollstonecraft in existence, one of which is in the upper gallery of the People’s History Museum, so you can go and see it after looking at Saunders’ tableaux. His representation seems to me to be a more humane and compassionate one, putting Wollstonecraft among a community, and presenting a positive image of a woman who should be better known.In an accompanying film, Saunders explains how he creates the tableaux. Each tableaux has been well researched and the attention to detail is painstaking, bringing to life scenes that depict important aspects of our history, while portraying the humanity of ordinary people.
While in Manchester for the opening of Hidden, Saunders visited the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) in Salford because for his next tableaux he is researching the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. The WCML has a unique collection of books, press reports and ephemera from the events of Peterloo.
Review by Bernadette Hyland
What: Hidden at the People’s History Museum, Manchester city centre
When: until September 29, 2013
Main image: William Cuffay and the London Chartists,1842. All images © Red Saunders, courtesy Impressions Gallery Bradford and The Culture Company