A fascinating collaboration between the V&A and the Black Cultural Archive charts the changing lives of black people in Britain and tells us much about who we are today, Matthew Ryder reports in this review for the Guardian.
In 1988, I bumped into a friend walking back from a lecture. “I didn’t see you at the black students’ group,” I said.
“It’s just… all we ever seem to talk about is racism,” she said, sighing. I was immediately filled with undergraduate indignation: “What do you mean ‘all’? It’s important!”
“I know,” she replied, “but isn’t there more to being black and British than that?”
It’s a question I have been trying to answer ever since. And it lies at the heart of the exhibition Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s, which is the culmination of a seven-year collaboration between the V&A and Brixton’s Black Cultural Archive. Over the two locations it features 118 images by 17 artists. The exhibition shares the name of the famous book by Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984). But while Fryer’s landmark work was largely concerned with slavery, colonialism, immigration and racism, this exhibition is different. Racism, insofar as it features, is merely one element of the historic backdrop. Instead the focus is on images of the ordinary lives of black Britons – those of African and Caribbean heritage – in the UK. Like the conversation with my friend back in 1988, it makes you question what it is to be black and British.
Over the years answering that question has not been easy, because racism has so often been used to define who we are. First, there was the concept of being “a stranger in your own home”: racism had made you a misfit. You had grown up in the UK, but because of your skin colour you would always be treated as an outsider. It left you feeling empty. You were being told to accept you would never really belong anywhere.
Second, you were often told – with some validity – that because “race” was largely a political and social construct, “being black” had no real meaning. It was a concept created by a racist society and your aspiration should be to free yourself from it. But that also felt inadequate. As a British black person, why did I have to leave behind my particular cultural references and personal history? Why was it not possible to celebrate both being black and being British? Should it really be my aspiration to “escape” from being black?
Third was the radical solution: in a racist society, being black was simply incompatible with being British, so you should choose the former over the latter. Being British was just not for you. Even when this seemed tempting, that option was a lot harder than it appeared. I suspect that most of us have never been more aware of how British we really are than when we visit relatives in the Caribbean or Africa. Like it or not, eventually you have to accept that this country is very much part of you.
It is in this regard that the Staying Power exhibition is so refreshing. It does not gloss over the presence of racism in 20th-century Britain, but it admirably resists focusing on images of black Britons as downtrodden victims or – even more temptingly – on black people as noble heroes whose entire lives were an anti-racist fight. If anything, it is the very ordinariness of the images – their humour and easy self-confidence – that makes this exhibition so special.
In part it is a story of immigrant life. There are affectionate images by photographers James Barnor, Raphael Albert and Neil Kenlock: contestants in a black beauty pageant; wedding guests in all their sophisticated 1960s glamour; and – my personal favourite – family members with their early-70s status symbols, such as the man standing beside his television or the young girl speaking on her parents’ telephone.
But Staying Power goes much further than immigration. The pictures by Normski document 1980s hip-hop fashions – from an “African homeboy” in Brixton (1987) to the sporty clothes of female rappers in Shepherd’s Bush (1988). I remember well the excitement of that emerging wave of new black consciousness and the style that came with it. Second-generation black British kids did not feel like immigrants and did not simply look to Africa and the Caribbean for cultural inspiration. We were trying to find our own voice as part of a wider diaspora. In the process we were reinterpreting and creating a new British black identity with style references from the US and elsewhere.
Perhaps most importantly, many of the photographs force visitors to confront the present by looking at the past. The relaxed moments caught in the 1970s pictures by Al Vandenberg, such as “Schoolgirls in a line”, or “Three boys in descending height order”, immediately make you wonder what happened to his subjects. Where are they today and how did those experiences shape their own senses of British identity? It reminds you vividly that the society we live in now was shaped by the relationships of children back then.
Similarly, Charlie Phillips’s “Notting Hill couple” (1967) makes a small but powerful point about how times have changed. The black man and white woman stare directly into the camera, his arm resting on her shoulder. In context it is easy to imagine how merely posing for that picture might have seemed like they were making a statement of defiance against the racist views that prevailed at the time. But viewed from 2015, it looks very different. What may have seemed a unusual picture to some is now just a picture of Mum and Dad for millions of British people.
The photographs end in the 1990s and therefore in some ways the exhibition only hints at what has happened since then. Many of the older photographs reflect an era when black British identity had an overwhelmingly Caribbean flavour, but that is changing. There is an unmistakable African influence, particularly of second- and third-generation young people, now present in British public life. You hear it in the changing slang on the street, but you also see it in the names on Powerful Media’s “Powerlist”, which annually documents Britain’s 100 most influential black people.
Additionally, the 2011 census tells us something about that vast new group of Britons who are of mixed heritage – the children and grandchildren of the people in the photographs. This makes for an intriguing and unpredictable future as we consider how young British people of African and Caribbean descent will see themselves in terms of race and culture as each generation passes. It is also a powerful reminder that the history of black people in Britain is becoming – quite literally – the history of British people as a whole.
We were reinterpreting and creating a new British black identity with style references from the US and elsewhere
The V&A exhibition is also an opportunity to see the critically acclaimed set of photographs “Diary of a Victorian Dandy” (1998), in which Turner Prize nominee Yinka Shonibare places himself at the centre of elaborate imagined scenes of Victorian life. It is a clever, sardonic work. It took me a moment to appreciate its relevance to the exhibition, but as I looked at the images they raised uncomfortable questions. What happened to all the Victorian black people, and why have they been almost erased from history? If the Victorian dandy, as an isolated black presence in a sea of white faces, looks uncomfortable or appears to be a curiosity, what does that say about the lives of many of today’s black professionals who similarly find ourselves the only black person in the room on a daily basis? Do we look equally foolish and out of place? Will we also be erased from the history books?
Apart from that conversation on the way back from the lecture in 1988, the exhibition also made me remember my days as an undergraduate at black students’ meetings for other reasons. It was inevitable then – as it is now – that any discussion of this kind would provoke the understandable reaction from someone that the “black community” was not homogenous and “black identity” could not be easily defined. Valid points. But eventually we all came to realise that trying to understand “black identity” or “black community” is not a pointless exercise. For many people, a sense of where being black fits into your own sense of who you are is meaningful. It is not just about understanding your culture and personal story, but also about the connection you have with others who have shared similar experiences and life perspectives. It underpins a genuine sense of belonging, which in turn allows for greater investment in wider society.
Even back then, the answer for many people who had difficulties with the concept of British black identity was simply to replace the term “black” with terms like “African-British” or “Caribbean-British”. The idea was that those terms better reflected a wider cultural identity rather than a narrower political one. That may be a solution and that time may have come. But more important than a change in terminology is recognising that the presence of black people in Britain has its own particular place in history. Racism and rebellion may be important but they are only part of that unique, complex picture.
We are often told we should celebrate the great diversity of modern British society. That’s true. But we must also find space to understand and celebrate the specific elements that make up that diversity. That is what this exhibition does so effectively for me. I hope it reminds visitors that being black and British is its own special strand of British identity. Of course it intertwines with many others to form the complexity of British identify as a whole. But sometimes taking the time to recognise the distinct beauty of each strand, as well as marvelling at how they all weave together, is no bad thing.
Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s is at the Black Cultural Archive (bcaheritage.org.uk) until 30 June and at the V&A from 16 February to 24 May (vam.ac.uk)
For the original report go to http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/feb/08/black-experience-photography-community-v-and-a