Words From the Archive: Intimate Distance (1989)
Words From the Archive

Words From the Archive: Intimate Distance (1989)

Words from the Archive is a series of posts inspired by The Photographers’ Gallery’s history of exhibitions and events, dating back to the gallery’s founding in 1971. Material from this history, including publications, exhibition research and ephemera, installation views and recorded talks, is currently being archived and digitised and is housed both offsite and in our Study Room on the Eranda Studio of our gallery in Soho. As our archivist works through this material, we endeavour to offer an insight into its richness and complexity here, by simply pairing text with image and offering a brief introduction to the material.

This series will open up windows into the past, drawing parallels with our current programme of exhibitions and projects, while considering how specific themes revisited through time, have changed or regained a particular urgency in relationship to the contemporary moment in photographic practice and culture.


In recent years one of our most requested exhibitions in the archive has been Intimate Distance, which, when it opened in 1989, introduced the ground-breaking work of five black British female artists to the public. They included Zarina Bhimji, Sutapa Biswas, Mona Hatoum, Ingrid Pollard and Maxine Walker.

The exhibition saw the artists commissioned, offering them the space to explore their shared ideas and motivations to make visible the complexities of their different cultural identities and the relationship of this to living and working as artists and women of colour in Britain in the late 1980s. Reflecting on their own personal experiences, they created a bold and multilayered exhibition, described by the exhibition’s curator David Chandler as “ a kind of searching analysis that foregrounds the complexity of cultural difference through their own histories as black female artists.”

The following sees quotes from the artists paired with images of their work. Today, at a time when nationalistic desires collide with the expression of multinational identities, the intensity of Intimate Distance regains a renewed sense of relevance – expanding upon and resonating with our current exhibition Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s: Works from the Verbund Collection. 

Elea Himmelsbach, Archive Organiser, The Photographers’ Gallery

During some moments of photographing, emotions that come are obscene, because they are unbearably real. The cry is connected to acts of shameless violence, cruelty and to the surrounding madness.

To exit or to think of a person who is traditionally rooted gives me a feeling of freedom and a feeling of panic.

The cry that leaves the body completely disorganised.

What would be heard if we could be listened to? This madness of the body? The shudder of organs? To be loud enough to be heard, to recognise the unlimited power of the organs.

With this process I am drawn towards the challenge of my own people. I fight them and I fight for them.

—Zarina Bhimji

Image: Mona Hatoum

Image: Mona Hatoum

Measures of Distance simultaneously speaks, writes and visualises the female body specifically as the body of the mother. Moving in and out of focus, doubled, fragmented, receding and again close, this body continues to move behind the script of letters from the mother in Beirut to the daughter in exile.

Two themes are continuously interwoven and inseparable in this exchange: the political circumstances as a set of specific causes for loss and psychosexual determinations of loss in the mother/daughter relationship.

No point of fixity is offered in the oscillation between plentitude and loss, identity and difference, as here the maternal body is inscribed specifically in a discourse of the mother as sexual subject.

—Mona Hatoum

Image: Ingrid Pollard

Image: Ingrid Pollard

“ A wave reaches the shore

a memory returns and is washed away

britain an island race

folklore and myth surround the maritime hero.

This work deals with the recordings of ‘the past’

the ancient past, the remembered past, the learnt past.

I have centered on the theme of the sea

3 generations of my family criss-cross the Atlantic 3 times:

I have drawn on the family album as a record of events, and as a continuing link in their journey.

—Ingrid Pollard

Image: Sutapa Biswas

Image: Sutapa Biswas

Infestations of the Aorta – Shrine to a Distance Relative

My work has concentrated on developing a visual language which through the fusion of different elements reflect some of the contradictions and tensions in our daily lives. Most recently, this has involved an architectural element. Through using repetition, the rhythm of patterns and structures becomes an important point of focus in the delineation of spaces. What is of interest to me is the continually shifting nature of this relationship.

‘Infestations of the Aorta -Shrine to a Distance Relative’ has many personal echoes. It explores the relationship between two people (mother and daughter / niece and aunt), separated by distance. The central images or negatives were taken during my first cousin, Mitu’s, naming ceremony. The work reflects a desire for ‘otherness’ and the haunting nature of that separation.

The experience is complex and many-layered, and the work emphasises this through the collage of materials. This use of photographic transparencies works within this context, but is also intended as a kind of anti-photograph, its duplication breaking with notions of one original negative.

—Sutapa Biswas

Image: Maxine Walker

Image: Maxine Walker


‘I want the same happiness for my daughters;

I want them to be able to wear my wedding dress well.’

‘Who is the woman in us that wanted to get married?’

White dress, White wedding, White society,

Black woman Black man.

The predominant notion of marriage concerns my enquiry. The home being the container for marriage. I am looking for perhaps unexpressed dialogue between the two people: ‘Man’ and ‘Wife’.

—Maxine Walker