”Beautiful and arresting”–This delightfully varied exhibition displays not only a strong sense of Black-British identity, but a relaxed and rightful sense of belonging.
The first image that greets visitors in this small but powerful exhibition is Armet Francis’s 1964 work, ‘Self-portrait in Mirror’. The young photographer – he was just 19 at the time – stands hunched intently over his camera in a room crowded with the trappings of daily life. Behind him, lounging among the clutter, a young white woman watches him. Francis is both photographer and friend (perhaps lover); talented professional and black teenager in a country still struggling with its racial politics; watcher and watched. It is the perfect opener for an exhibition exploring identity, representation, and how both can be altered and owned with the click of a camera’s shutter.
The photographs on display have been recently acquired by the V&A with the help of the Black Cultural Archives, as part of a drive to bolster the museum’s permanent collection of photographs either by black British photographers, or that represent black people living in Britain. Curated by Marta Weiss, they provide a delightfully varied mix of subject matter and form.
There are Raphael Albert’s reportage shots of black beauty pageants taken in the 60s and 70s – proudly echoing America’s ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement, while drawing unsettling attention to pageants’ objectifying roots. In one particularly striking image, a young woman stares defiantly into the camera, her breathtaking natural beauty offset by fingers full of gaudy rings. Neil Kenlock gives us an intimate glimpse into the homes and psyches of 1970s British-Caribbean families, as they pose with their possessions for portraits often sent home to relatives – jubilant proof of a successful emigration. And further into the exhibition, ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s crisp, detailed images showcase the sculptural magnificence of the hairstyles and headties worn by Nigerian women. All of the images are beautiful; all arresting. But there is something more.
Yinka Shonibare touches on this extra quality in one of a set of interviews visitors can listen to via headphones. (The full collection, which also includes the photographers’ subjects, can be heard at a simultaneous exhibition running at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton). Describing his Diary of a Victorian Dandy, a playful series based loosely on Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, in which Shonibare plays a debauched dandy, the photographer explains that he wanted to provide an alternative to the protest art some have come to expect from photographers of African origin – to show black people in a ‘leisurely environment’ rather than ‘fighting against an unfair system’.
And it is this ease that provides the exhibition’s magic. After years of struggle for Britain’s black communities (a struggle that, of course, continues for some), here is a set of images that displays not only a strong sense of Black-British identity, but a relaxed and rightful sense of belonging – to and within our cultural history.
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