Cian Oba Smith, ‘A quiet prayer’ on Foreground Projects

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February 2021

“In the week the UK recorded its highest daily death toll from the coronavirus pandemic, Foreground launch the second project in our new online programme How We Live Now: A Quiet Prayer by Cian Oba-Smith.

A Quiet Prayer premieres a new body of work by award-winning London-based, Irish-Nigerian photographer Cian Oba Smith. It is a beautiful but sombre meditation on London in the first lockdown of Spring 2020, and a sensitive portrait of how the pandemic has disproportionally affected the most vulnerable elements of British society.

Oba-Smith’s work is concerned with representing people who are often overlooked and the places that are too frequently misrepresented. Whether capturing the little-known communities and the fringes of society of his native London or recording minorities and sub-cultures around the world, he has a particular interest in exploring how the relationship between people, their environment and how they are represented shapes their experience.

The launch of A Quiet Prayer comes as the UK is in the grip of the third national lockdown imposed to combat the spread of Covid-19, despite the start of a national vaccination programme. As the streets of our towns and cities again become eerily empty, schools and workplaces are closed or populated only by critical workers and their children, Oba-Smith returns us to the streets of the capital in Spring 2020 to revisit what many of us would have thought would have been an isolated historical moment, but now feels disquietingly familiar.

From the iconic image of boys on bikes cycling through a deserted Regent’s Street, to the loneliness of mask-wearing key workers moving through the city, to the empty stations, and the empty skies over London landmarks, A Quiet Prayer vividly conjures up the way the Covid-19 has curtailed our normal way of life like no other event since the world wars.

Against this strange desertion, and the social isolation that it has imposed on so many people, Oba-Smith captures the emotional as well as physical landscape of the emerging pandemic. Whether in the tender moments of physical connection between couples, the spontaneous celebrations for the NHS, or in his images of the homeless and disadvantaged on London’s streets, A Quiet Prayer highlights our common humanity, but also that we have not all been equally affected by the pandemic, or the government’s response to it.

Mixed in with the rainbow drawings by children in windows, the markings and tape on pavements to demarcate social distance, Oba-Smith also records the politicised statements emerging within the fabric of the city as the restrictions imposed on everyday life quickly exposed the deep social inequities of contemporary Britain.

But even as A Quiet Prayer makes the human cost of the pandemic concrete, such as in the artist’s images of the temporary Covid-19 morgue erected in London parkland, Oba-Smith’s camera emphasises people’s individual dignity and our ability to find hope and solace together in the most difficult circumstances.

A complex and humane portrait of the social effects of the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic in London in 2020, A Quiet Prayer captures the unique nature of our historical moment, whilst subtly underlining the forces that allow us to obscure and ignore the inequalities that exist within the heart of contemporary society.”

Text from Foreground Projects. You can read more about it here, and see Cian’s work exhibited here.