Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s (V and A Museum, London)

Room 38a at the V&A Museum currently features a series of photographic reflections on black British lived experiences over a period of five decades, captured by selected African and Caribbean diaspora artists and photo journalists who came to prominence between the early ’50s and the 1990s.

Exhibition view of, 'Notting Hill Couple (1967)  and The 'Pisshouse Pub (1969), by Charlie Phillips.
Exhibition view of ‘Notting Hill Couple’ (1967) and ‘The Pisshouse Pub’ (1969), by Charlie Phillips.

The photographs are a sample of relatively recent acquisitions for the V&A’s growing collection of documentary and aesthetic works by black photographers, film-makers and conceptual artists whose portfolios and archives give prominence to images and representations of black British people as an integral feature of their oeuvres.

Portraits by Neil Kenlock (b. 1950, Port Antonio, Jamaica). These pictures feature Brixton residents at home in the early 1970s.
Portraits by Neil Kenlock (b. 1950, Port Antonio, Jamaica). These pictures feature Brixton residents at home in the early 1970s.

The artworks showcased in this single-room display range from pictures illustrative of the diversity and dynamism of black urban cultures across several generations – including impromptu and posed images by Armet Francis, Dennis Morris, Charlie Phillips and Normski; quartets of stunning black-and-white studio portraits by African luminaries such as Ghana’s James Barnor and Nigeria’s J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere; and full-colour portraits of African Caribbean Londoners at home that were taken by Jamaican-born Brixton-based photographer Neil Kenlock during the 1970s.

Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 14.00 hours, by Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA).
Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 14.00 hours, by Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA).

A particularly important element of the exhibition is the amount of space devoted to a suite of five, large-scale photographic tableaux positioned along the length of the left-hand-side wall – titled ‘Diary of a Victorian Dandy’ (1998), by Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA). In each of these theatrically assembled, gold-framed images the artist situates himself in the centre of scenes and decorative settings that have been ornately styled to look like rooms in the household of a wealthy, fashionable Victorian gentleman from the late-19th century. The times inserted as sub-headings suggest that each staging  represents changing activities pursued over the course of 24 hours: with some scenes depicting the playful performance of boundary transgressions across differences of ‘race’, gender and class frozen in time by the photographer’s gaze; and others suggestive of acts of debauchery that re-enact the types of excessive behaviour illustrated in William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (c. 1733-1735).
Continue reading Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s (V and A Museum, London)

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A review of the Tate Britain symposium, “The Black Subject: Ancient to Modern”

A photograph of the sculpture 'Midonz' (1937) by Jamaican-British artist Ronald Moody. Source: Tate Britain. © The estate of Ronald Moody
A photograph of the sculpture ‘Midonz’ (1937) by Jamaican-British artist Ronald Moody. Source: Tate Britain. © The estate of Ronald Moody

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.

A photograph of American actor, singer, political activist  and philanthropist Paul Robeson (1898-1976)
A photograph of American actor, singer, political activist and philanthropist Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

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’.

A still from the film Borderline (1930) showing the African-American actress Eslanda Goode Robeson (1895-1965).
A still from the film Borderline (1930) showing the African-American actress Eslanda Goode Robeson (1895-1965).

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.

Continue reading A review of the Tate Britain symposium, “The Black Subject: Ancient to Modern”