Tex Ajetunmobi, Photographer
Bandele Ajetunmobi – widely known as Tex – took photographs in the East End for almost half a century, starting in the late forties. He recorded a tender vision of interracial cameradarie, notably as manifest in a glamorous underground nightlife culture yet sometimes underscored with melancholy too – creating poignant portraits that witness an almost-forgotten era of recent history.
In 1947, at twenty-six years old, he stowed away on a boat from Nigeria – where he found himself an outcast on account of the disability he acquired from polio as a child – and in East London he discovered the freedom to pursue his life’s passion for photography, not for money or reputation but for the love of it.
He was one of Britain’s first black photographers and he lived here in Commercial St, Spitalfields, yet most of his work was destroyed when he died in 1994 and, if his niece had not rescued a couple of hundred negatives from a skip, we should have no evidence of his breathtaking talent.
Fortunately, Tex’s photographs found a home at Autograph ABP where they are preserved in the permanent archive and it was there I met with Victoria Loughran, who had the brave insight to appreciate the quality of her uncle’s work and make it her mission to achieve recognition for him posthumously.
“He was the youngest brother and he was disabled as well but he was very good at art, so they apprenticed him to a portrait photographer in Lagos. It suited him yet it wasn’t enough, so he packed up and, without anything much, left for England with my Uncle Chris.
Juliana, my mum had already come from Nigeria and, when I was born, she lived in Brick Lane but, after a gas explosion, we had to move out – that’s how we ended up in Newham. When I was a child, we didn’t come over here much – except sometimes to visit Brick Lane and Petticoat Lane on a Sunday – because we had moved to a better place. I understood I was born in Bethnal Green but I grew up in a better class of neighbourhood.
I knew that she didn’t approve of my uncle’s lifestyle, she didn’t approve of the drinking and probably there were drugs too. They were lots of rifts and falling out that I didn’t understand at the time. When everything became about having jobs to survive, she couldn’t comprehend doing something which didn’t make money. In another life, she might have understood his ideals – but we were immigrants and you have to feed yourself. She thought, ‘Why are you doing something that doesn’t sit comfortably with being poor?’
He did all this photography yet he didn’t do it to make money, he did it for pleasure and for artistic purposes. He was doing it for art’s sake.He had lots of books of photography and he studied it. He was doing it because those things needed to be recorded. You fall in love with a medium and that’s what happened to him. He spent all his money on photography. He had expensive cameras, Hasselblads and Leicas. My mother said, ‘If you sold one, you could make a visit to Nigeria.’ But he never went back, he was probably a bit of an outcast because of his polio as a child and it suited him to be somewhere people didn’t judge him for that.
He used to come and visit regularly when we lived in Stratford and there are family pictures that he took of us. His pictures pop out at me and remind me of my childhood, they prove to me that it really was that colourful. He was fun. Cissy was his girlfriend, they were together. She was white. When Cissy separated from her husband, he got custody of her children because she was with a black man – and her family stopped talking to her. She and Tex really wanted to have children of their own but they weren’t able to. They were Uncle Tex and Aunty Cissy, they would come round with presents and sweets, and they were a model couple to us as children. To see a mixed race couple wasn’t strange to us – where we lived it was full of immigrants and we were poor people and we just got on with life, and helped each other out.
He used to do buying and selling from a stall in Brick Lane. When he died, they found so much stuff in his flat, art equipment, pens, old records and fountain pens. He had a very good eye for things. Everybody knew him, he was always with his camera and they stopped him in the street and asked him to take their picture. He was able to take photographs in clubs, so he must have been a trusted and respected figure. Even if the subjects are poor, they are strutting their stuff for the camera. He gave them their pride and I like that.
He was not extreme in his vices. He died of a heart attack after being for a night out with his card-playing friends. He lived alone by then, he and Cissy were separated. But he was able to go to his neighbour’s flat and they called an ambulance so, although he lived alone, he didn’t die alone.
I thought he deserved more, that he was important. I just got bloody-minded. It wasn’t just because he was my uncle, it’s because it was brilliant photography. He deserved for people to see his work. There were thousands of pictures but only about three hundred have survived. Just one plastic bag of photos from a life’s work.”
Tex was generous with his photographs, giving away many pictures taken for friends and acquaintances in the East End – so if anybody knows of the existence of any more of his photos please get in touch so that we may extend the slim yet precious canon of Bandele “Tex” Ajetunmobi’s photography.
Whitechapel night club, nineteen-fifties
East End, nineteen seventies
On Brick Lane, seventies
Bandele “Tex” Ajetunmobi, self portrait