The Cy Grant Trust – working in partnership with the education charity Windrush Foundation and London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) – recently received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to catalogue the archives of the writer, actor, musician, barrister and equalities campaigner, Cy Grant (1919-2010).
Cyril Ewart Lionel Grant (known as ‘Cy’) was born in Guyana in 1919 and served as a Flight Lieutenant and navigator in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War before settling in the UK to train and qualify as a barrister. As a result of the extreme racism encountered in post-war Britain, Cy was unable to pursue his chosen career in the legal sector, so instead sought work in the entertainment industry using his talents as a singer/songwriter, actor and musician – quickly rising to national prominence in the 1950s and 1960s as one of the few people of Caribbean descent to regularly appear on British television at that time. Over several decades Cy Grant made a substantial contribution to the arts and to broadcasting in Britain, always actively supporting fellow diasporan arts practitioners from Africa and the Caribbean to help them secure professional positions and contracts within British theatre, the UK film and music industries, and the wider literary and performing arts arenas. Continue reading Navigating the Dreams of an Icon: The Cy Grant Archives at the LMA – a new heritage initiative for 2016/17
Earlier in September I was pleased to present a conference paper at AfroEuropeans V: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Münster, 16-19 September 2015) – the fifth biennial network event exploring socio-political issues and spatialities relating to histories of migration, diaspora formation, economic interdependencies and cultural links between Africa and Europe.
My contribution formed part of a diverse programme of speeches, panel presentations, structured debates and artistic performances that enabled participants to engage in wide-ranging, interdisciplinary dialogues about past and present-day life experiences of Africans and Diasporans in Europe, with a particular focus on the role of activism within academia.
The opening keynote address by political scientist Jamie Schearer (a founding member of the European Network for People of African Descent (ENPAD)) set an optimistic tone for the conference by outlining the many positive and tangible ways ENPAD was initiating effective advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns, publishing educational resources and providing safe spaces for discussing the many complex and challenging issues of race and racism(s) faced by Africans in Europe. Some of the most successful projects recently undertaken in Amsterdam, London, Warsaw and Berlin were foregrounded – including the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tours, the “# Ferguson is Everywhere” campaign, and wider political lobbying related to issues of police violence, racial profiling, and inequalities within systems of justice. Fittingly, we were reminded of key figures in German history and political activism who have made significant contributions to discourses on challenging racism, xenophobia, stereotyping, anti-blackness, sexism and homophobia – not least the Afro-German poet and educationalist May Ayim (1960-1996), and the African-American writer and rights activist Audre Lorde (1934-1992). Continue reading Memory and Museums at “AfroEuropeans V” (University of Münster, Germany)
‘American Policing: Lessons on Resistance’ is the title of a panel discussion that took place at the Schomburg in New York on 18th February 2015 as a follow-up conversation to their recent town-hall-style debate on ‘American Policing: The War on Black Bodies’. The session featured wide-ranging commentary on issues related to police brutality, racial discrimination, ‘stop and frisk’/’stop and search’ policies, and community-led responses to the killing of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Aiyana Stanley-Jones and others in recent news.
The panel discussion was moderated by writer Mychal Denzel Smith (The Nation), with contributions from the following four political activists and social commentators: Ashley Yates (poet and co-creator of Millennial Activists United), Dante Barry (Director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice), Philip Agnew (Co-founder of Dream Defenders) and Cherrell Brown (National Organizer with Equal Justice USA). Closing comments were also provided by Dr Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Central to the debate were questions about what justice might look like if black lives actually mattered in the USA; strategies for restructuring, de-militarizing and dismantling policing systems so that their historical origins in the States as organisations founded on the surveillance and restriction of the lives, mobilities and freedoms of black and brown people did not continue to perpetuate racialized discrimination; critiquing the complexities of campaigning against the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and the increasing monetization of incarcerated black bodies; envisioning safe communities; aligning anti-racist political activism with wider education and culture agendas – including activism via the arts; routes into community-based activism and leadership for young people; self-esteem/’self-love’/self-care and spirituality issues within movements for social change; and effective ways to disseminate counter-narratives to help challenge the normalisation of privileged white citizenship to the detriment of others’ lived realities.
Following an extremely hard-fought and impassioned anti-racism campaign led by journalist and rights activist Sara Myers, the senior management team of the Barbicanarts centre issued a formal statement on Tuesday 23rd September to confirm their cancellation of the controversial installation ‘Exhibit B – Third World Bunfight’ by South African ‘artist’ Brett Bailey, which was scheduled for display at the Vaults in central London from 23rd-27th September 2014.
“We respect people’s right to protest but are disappointed that this was not done in a peaceful way as had been previously promised by campaigners …We believe this piece should be shown in London and are disturbed at the potential implications this silencing of artists and performers has for freedom of expression.”
(Source: http://www.barbican.org.uk/ – News Release, dated 23 September 2014).
Despite closing down the event, the Barbican have continued to reiterate that they consider ‘Exhibit B’ to be an important piece of anti-racist performance art which “critiques the ‘human zoos’ and ethnographic displays that showed Africans as objects of scientific curiosity through the 19th and early 20th centuries.” However, the nature of the live performance tableaux featured in this work – which present male and female actors of African descent shackled, enchained and imprisoned in cages with labels stating, “The blacks have been fed” – has led thousands of people (myself included) to question whether this (so called) performance art piece merely reinforces the barbarity and inhumanity of past colonial exhibiting practices in ‘Human Zoos’ without actually doing anything to challenge them, and (more importantly still) fails to achieve any anti-racist outcomes that have the potential to make life better for the communities of people still living with the impacts and legacies of that violent and traumatic history.
“The embarrassment that my presence caused – to the point of making me, in their eyes, some sort of ‘Invisible Man’ or merely the consort of a European woman artist – was understandable, as before me, there had never been, to my knowledge, any black man taking part in the visual arts ‘avant-garde’ of the Western World.”
– Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002), reflecting on life in Denmark during the CoBrA years, c.1948-50 (Obrist, 2010: 380)
In a similar way to the voices of anti-racist novelists, playwrights, performance poets and musicians from South Africa – not least the singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba, the novelist Mongane Wally Seroteand the poet Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, etc. – a number of contemporary visual artists have been highly influential in using art as a platform for commenting on the changing socio-economic and political landscape of post-apartheid South Africa.
Several early modernists whose work openly challenged the apartheid regime included the abstractionist and sculptor Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002) – who was born in Johannesburg, but emigrated to study fine art in Paris, and later became one of the founder members of the influential CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) art movement; the abstract expressionist painter Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993) – who in 1940 became the first black South African to have a painting exhibited in the Johannesburg Art Gallery; and the mixed-media illustrator and graphic designer Zwelidumile Geelboi Mgxaji Mslaba (known internationally as Dumile Feni) (1942-1991), who was often referred to as the ‘Goya of the townships’ because of the poignant monochromatic ballpoint pen drawings he created to comment on urban poverty and the struggles against apartheid (Peffer, 2009: 44). In more recent decades a number of new artists have also emerged from the Johannesburg art scene – largely as a result of the city’s hosting of two successful biennials in 1995 and 1997 that put South Africa on the art world map.