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Photographing The Black British Experience

Images courtesy of the V&A + Black Cultural Archives. Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience, 1950s-1990s, runs from 16 February – 24 May 2015 at the V&A, and 15 January – 30 June 2015 at the Black Cultural Archives in London.

Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic created a space for Black transnational cultural construction and a reimagining of black identities. It dissolved national boundaries, highlighting the interconnectivity of people whose ancestors originated in West Africa, and whose fates were forever transformed by the centuries long trade in human flesh. In many ways Staying Power might be read as a photographic pit stop on a tour through the Black Atlantic. The exhibition – split over two sites, consisting of about 25 photographs displayed at the Black Cultural Archives, and approximately 60 at the Victoria and Albert Museum – is a collection of images documenting the all too often overlooked lives of Britain’s Black population.

Both the photographers themselves, and the subjects, represent black British life in its diversity. From Ghana to Guyana, Ibadan to Brixton, the transatlantic routes that inform Black British experience are revealed in their complexity. Islamic B-boys, beauty queens, policemen and punks, all make up the milieu of a black life that stretches far beyond the confines of the ‘urban’ we are peddled via mainstream representations of blackness.

The work of Ingrid Pollard, a Guyanese immigrant who moved to England in the 1950s aged four, is featured with a series of photographs, Pastoral Interlude (1988), that locates black subjects in rural settings. The mere positioning of black bodies in England’s green and pleasant land remains a subversive act, challenging the claim that black people can never really be British, and must remain somehow foreign in a land which they have not only lived in for centuries, but moreover from whose labour and resources Britain achieved the obscene wealth that made it “Great.”

Pollard’s photographs confront the binary that dictates black is by necessity ‘urban’ and by association ‘grimy,’ while the countryside is quintessentially white, the real England – remaining pure and unpolluted by a black presence.

The inclusion of Pollard’s series highlights the role of women in the exhibition. Black women –who tend to be sidelined in the mainstream representations of black British life that do exist – are well attended, both as photographers and subjects. Maxine Walker, a British-Jamaican photographer who lives and works in Birmingham, deals explicitly with representation and identity. In her 1995 series Untitled, Walker engages the politics of black hair and styling through self-portraiture. Transforming herself through the use of wigs, the artist examines the ways practices of self-presentation are laden with racialised and gendered assumptions, directly confronting racist stereotypes.

One of my favourite images in the exhibition is Raphael Albert’s (1935-2009) The Harder They Come. The title is a reference to the record sleeve gripped by an ethereally beautiful young woman, as she looks on in rapt awe, to a place the photograph does not permit us access to. Meanwhile a young man to her left directly faces the camera with an expression of sheer mischievousness. I love this photograph, not only for capturing the range of expressions, but also for its demonstration of the diversity of skin shades, hues, features, and hair textures that exist in black communities, testimony to the inclusiveness of black identities. Other works from Albert document the Black British beauty pageants that began to take place throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Albert came to be a central figure in this world, establishing the Miss West Indies in Great Britain pageant in 1963. In the face of processes that have long attempted to position black women as somehow less beautiful than others, the acknowledgement of Black beauty does important work. However at the same time, a tension exists between the need for recognition, and the objectification of women’s bodies inherent in a beauty pageant. Given Black people have long been defined by their bodies, while their cerebral abilities are denied, there is arguably even more at stake for women of African descent when it comes to objectification. As such this series poses interesting questions in regards to the politics of representation.

Famed for his iconic pictures of musicians, including Bob Marley and the Sex Pistols, Dennis MorrisGrowing up Black series reminds us that long before that meaningless catchall bogeyman, ‘The Hipster,’ was accredited with making Hackney hip, the area was home to black clubs such as the Four Aces. This celebrated nightspot drew A-listers from Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones, to Stevie Wonder, to disreputable Dalston until Hackney council shut it down in 1999.

Neil Kenlocks’ 1974 photograph “Keep Britain White,” in which a young black woman stands next to the scrawled message of the title, echoes sentiments that characterize the contemporary immigration debate. This image serves as a reminder that things perhaps haven’t changed as much as some might have us believe.

The British cultural landscape would be unrecognizable without the contributions of the children of the Black Atlantic, yet the British imagination remains unwilling, or unable to acknowledge this. What Staying Power achieves, and crucially what it brings to the heart of the British establishment, is the incredible story of Black Briton’s ability to survive in the face of hostility. Moreover, the photographs demonstrate the many ways in which the African Diaspora has irrevocably enriched life in a nation that still struggles to recognize how much it benefits from the presence of its Black population.

Emma Dabiri is an academic and writer. Her research focuses on the metaphysics of blackness. Follow her at @TheDiasporaDiva.

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