Like many, Vivienne Gamble believed that a career in the art world was unattainable. However, after almost a decade working in TV advertising, she decided to redirect her future and has since founded Seen Fifteen gallery in Peckham.
I met Vivienne inside the South London gallery that she named after Peckham’s eponymous postcode SE15. The space, which is located inside Copeland Park’s Bussey building, is a twenty-minute walk away from Vivienne’s home, with the curator having made Peckham her home for years.
Seen Fifteen is a space dedicated to contemporary photography, video and installation art. In 2013, Vivienne took a career-break to self-fund an MA in the History and Theory of Photography at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, providing her with the academic skills and further drive to set up her gallery space. Born in Belfast, Vivienne says that she never thought she could go to art school. She now wishes that she could turn back the clock and attend one, explaining that she finds them exciting and intriguing places. Before she started Seen Fifteen, Vivienne saw her job in advertising as creative but now she doesn’t consider it creative at all. Her corporate career however, did provide her with the skills needed to manage people and events.
Between shows, Vivienne works on a freelance-basis on Creative Consultancy projects to ensure that Seen Fifteen remains financially afloat, in fact, when I popped by, she had just returned from a work trip to Dubai. When she is not working at the gallery, the space is home to South Kiosk and KitMapper, whom she shares the gallery space with. It is important to Vivienne that she belongs to a community of artists, something that is at the heart of the shared ethos of the occupants of the Bussey Building/Copeland Park community. She also believes that art should be accessible to everyone, explaining that she doesn’t like the idea of a ‘private’ view, as she feels it feeds into the, often neutralized idea of the art world being bordered by exclusivity, opting instead to call her launches ‘opening parties.’ This idea carries through into her curatorial approach and she has just organised the second edition of Peckham 24, which she co-founded with Jo Dennis, an artist based in the Bussey Building. Peckham 24 is a pop-up photography festival that was open for 24 hours at the end of Photo London, an international photography fair with a line-up, which includes mostly blue-chip galleries. The festival unites a network of artists, curators and galleries local to Peckham to shine a light on cutting-edge photographic artworks, not just from Peckham, but also internationally. Vivienne was sure to add that artists from her hometown of Belfast were also invited, as she excitingly told me that its local art scene is really growing.
On my last visit to Seen Fifteen, Vivienne welcomed me to a completely empty gallery that had just had its walls repainted. The distinct smell of paint still lingered as Vivienne told me she was in the process of sourcing a bed. Her search for furniture was for the installation of Laura El-Tantawy’s exhibition Beyond Here is Nothing. The gallery’s curatorial focus works with photography’s ‘Expanded Field’, which crosses inter-disciplinary boundaries and experiments with non-traditional modes of display. Seen Fifteen’s previous show saw Swiss photographer Maya Rochat use projectors and video installation, as well as move her artwork out of the frame and onto the walls and windows.
Laura’s plans for the bed suggest that she quite literally intended to make the gallery her home for the duration of her show. The Egyptian artist was born in Worcestershire and attended high school in Saudi Arabia, she then went on to begin her studies in Cairo and eventually graduated in the US. Constantly travelling between East and West, nowhere has ever really felt like home for Laura, so the placement of a bed in a gallery in Peckham seems especially poignant. A bed suggests home, it roots you to a place, providing a source of comfort in the vulnerable state of sleep. Laura explains: ‘for much of my life home has been an abstract place far away from my reach.’ Her photographs on display at Seen Fifteen explored feelings of rootlessness, identity and cultural clashes.
When I discussed Laura’s exhibition with Vivienne, she commented on the juxtaposition between the restrictions imposed on women in Saudi Arabia compared to America, which is so liberal in contrast. Laura refers to her images, which she shoots on her iPhone, as ‘photographic meditation.’ They are light and airy and look towards the sky, where land borders are non-existent and physical boundaries are blurred. A series of cloudscapes metaphorically hint at broader existential questions about what lies beyond the notion of home. The works, which are presented in a multi-media installation and both prints and projections, capture abstract glimpses of life on different continents. Her blurred images pull the viewer back and forth from East to West from the palm trees of Cairo to the grey puddles of London.
To coincide with the exhibition at Seen Fifteen, Laura also presented a self-published monograph titled Beyond Here is Nothing, sharing a title with the show. Her previous book, In The Shadow of the Pyramids, was short-listed for the prestigious Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize in 2016 which documented her personal insight into the events of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011-2013, a project that began as an exploration into her childhood memories of Cairo that dramatically changed due to the politics in the region at the time.
The benefits of publishing a book independently, free from the restrictions imposed by editors, mimics the ethos Vivienne promotes at her gallery and the drive and determination that saw her move away from a corporate environment into the art world. Seen Fifteen is an exciting, welcoming space, that provides a distinct voice to Peckham’s art scene.
Beyond Here is Nothing was on display at Seen Fifteen between 12th May and 4th June 2017