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
The Black Studies Association conference – “Blackness in Britain 2015: ‘The Black Special Relationship'” (held at Birmingham City University, 30-31 October 2015) – explored the nature of black activism within and beyond the UK higher education sector, with a particular focus on the historical and contemporary impacts of African-American scholarship on black intellectual life in Britain.
Established and early career researchers from a range of institutions within the Euro-American academy joined educationalists and grassroots activists from the wider public sphere to present panels on themes that included: Race Politics in Urban Settings; Black Feminist Resistance, African-centered Thought and Healing; Representation and Communication; Educational Experiences; Pedagogy, Curriculum and Theory; Black Political Activism; Literature, Film and Art History; and Blackness in Europe.
It was fitting that the opening keynote address was given by Professor Gus John, who succinctly historicised the way activist-scholars drawn from the global African diaspora(s) have joined forces at pivotal moments -– such as the inaugural Pan-African Conference held in London in 1900, and the Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in 1945 – to align localised anti-colonial struggles against oppression and successfully instigate world-wide movements of resistance. His talk also emphasised the need to be vigilant and proactive in our campaigns to revise, progress and expand Black Studies curricula across the educational phases – especially as this was seen as key to challenging the ongoing omissions, erasures and marginalisation of Africa-related achievements within established canons of knowledge. Continue reading Activism and Scholarship: Achieving the “Plenitude of Blackness”
When curators of the recently opened exhibition at the Ikon Gallery invited audiences to feel “At Home with Vanley Burke“ (22 July – 27 September 2015) I was quite cautious about whether a mainstream British art gallery could create a welcoming space that centralised black British social, political and cultural narratives. However, I immediately overcame my initial skepticism as soon as I stepped over the threshold of this innovative and sensitively curated installation about the life and work of Birmingham-based photographer Vanley Burke (b. 1951) – an artist, activist and cultural commentator widely regarded as the “Godfather of Black British photography.”
The exhibition – co-curated by Vanley Burke and Jonathan Watkins, with the assistance of Roma Piotrowska – features the entire contents of Vanley Burke’s flat in the Nechells area of Birmingham, carefully re-positioned and creatively displayed in five rooms throughout the 1st floor of the Ikon’s contemporary exhibition space.
The presentation juxtaposes artworks from the photographer’s celebrated portfolio of documentary images and iconic portraiture with archival documents, political posters, news cuttings, books, records, furniture, clothing, household utensils, ornaments and a variety of other ephemera collected and archived by Vanley Burke over more than half a century since arriving in the UK as a teenager from St Thomas, Jamaica, in 1965.
Hundreds of cultural objects are assembled and displayed in five thematic sections that broadly correspond with the entrance hallway, kitchen, study, living room and bedroom of Vanley Burke’s home. Additional items are also positioned in the interstitial spaces connecting the rooms to form a seamless and continuous pathway through the exhibition.
From the large bevelled wall mirror positioned at the entrance to the exhibition, to studio portraits of family members displayed in the corridor areas, a classic 1960s radiogram surrounded by kitsch, crocheted plastic doilies, and a floor-to-ceiling vinyl collection, much of this content evokes the “West Indian front room” aesthetics of post-World War 2 urban Britain.
However, these everyday objects are poignantly interspersed with more politically charged artworks and ephemera – including documentary photographs of racist graffiti painted on brick walls by the far-right National Front, the grotesque Robertson’s “Golly” featured on ceramic thimbles, soft toys and miniature statuettes, and a pile of rusting chains and instruments of torture from the enslavement era tightly packed into a small child’s wooden school desk. During a recent interview recorded for the exhibition in July 2015 Vanley Burke explained his reasons for collecting and archiving this type of material as follows: Continue reading “At Home with Vanley Burke”: an immersive installation at the Ikon Gallery
On 20th and 21st February 2015 Tate Britain hosted a two-day event to explore a number of themes about representations of African and Asian people and their diasporic descendents within European art history. The symposium was scheduled to complement the display ‘Spaces of Black Modernism: London 1919–39’ – co-curated by Dr Caroline Bressey and Dr Gemma Romain (The Equiano Centre, University College London), and currently on view at Tate Britain until October 2015.
Through a carefully assembled programme of talks, film screenings and audio-visual provocations the title ‘The Black Subject: Ancient to Modern’ was brought to life by a diverse group of scholars from the fields of visual arts, curating, art history and the social sciences – with each participant offering unique insights into changing representations of the black image within artworks from the Tate’s British art collection, other UK art institutions, and European museums and galleries more broadly.
Friday’s session featured a screening of Borderline (1930) – an avant-garde silent movie created by British film director Kenneth Macpherson, starring African-American actors Paul Robeson and Eslanda (‘Essie’) Robeson. The resulting Q&A critiqued the complexities of the featured relationships that addressed inter-sected issues about ‘inter-racial’ intimacy, gender identities, notions of belonging and sexuality ‘across the colour line’.
Saturday’s symposium was arranged into four chronological and thematic sessions, considering: (1) the ongoing tensions that can arise during the process of documenting the longevity of the black presence whilst simultaneously noting the continuous absences, erasures and distortions of African, Asian and diasporic contributions within British art history; (2) photographic images and illustrations of black Victorians sourced from a range of public and private archives; (3) two case studies about artists’ models from early 20th century and inter-war colonial periods – specifically the life of the Jamaican artistic model Patrick Nelson (1916-1963), presented in Gemma Romain’s paper “Patrick Nelson: Identity, queerness and love in the life of a black artists’ model in interwar Britain”; and the lives of Dr Roshan McClenahan’s famous Indian aunts ‘Sunita and Anita’ who both modelled for artist Sir Jacob Epstein; (4) re-imagining and pluralising the modernist canon as global, hybrid and ‘multi-polar’, envisioned via scholarship about the life and work of the Indian modernist Jamini Roy, presented by Professor Partha Mitter.
The theme of the Black Studies Association annual conference is “The Black Special Relationship: The US influence on British Black Studies.” This two-day event takes place at Birmingham City University, 30-31 October 2015, and its programme is concerned with an examination of ways in which Black British intellectual life has been influenced by African-American scholarship – both in terms of the past histories and present-day narratives of Black populations in the UK and the wider African diaspora.
October 2015 will also mark 70th anniversary of the 5th Pan African Congress held in Manchester in 1945 where key global political activists and intellectuals including Amy Ashwood Garvey, W. E B. Dubois, Ras Makonnen, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah, came together to discuss global and local strategies to dismantle racialised discrimination, colonialism and European imperialism. Black intellectual thought in Britain has historically drawn upon these intellectual trajectories that have travelled across and through African diasporas. Yet more recently, it is through the predominance of African-American intellectual thought and scholarship that African diasporas in the UK have engaged with ideas of blackness, Black studies, race and racism.
In addition to keynote presentations from internationally renowned scholars such as Professor Patricia Hill Collins, Associate Professor Barnor Hesse, Professor Gus John and Professor Denise Ferreira De Silva, the BSA are inviting academics and activists to submit papers for the proposed panel debates which address topics and themes such as (but not limited to): Black feminist activism and scholarship; Pan-Africanism in Britain; Community organising and activism; Blackness, sexualities and sexual politics; The legacy of ‘New Ethnicities’; Neoliberalism, colonialism, imperialism; Education; Faith, theology, religion and blackness; Black space, black geographies; African centred thought; and African diasporic borders.