Staying Power, a new exhibition on the British black experience at London's V&A Museum, gives lie to the idea of the 'black British' experience as a singular, definable idea. Brennavan Sritharan reports
A young girl, speaking on the telephone, stands in a well-kept living room. She smiles to someone outside the frame, yet her posture suggests this isn’t a casual snapshot. As we learn from photographer Neil Kenlock, she’s pretending to speak to her grandparents in Jamaica — the photograph a token of the family’s prosperous new life in Britain, balancing the quotidian with the achingly intimate.
This communication between generations, between the motherland and a new home, gets to the heart of Staying Power, a new exhibition currently on display at the V&A.
The exhibition is the culmination of a joint project with the Black Cultural Archives, started in 2008, showcasing photographs that respond and relate to the ‘black British’ experience. With a collection spanning 118 photographs and 17 different photographers, black British life is rendered with a comprehensiveness and variety rarely seen in the cultural landscape.
Marta Weiss, curator of photographs at the V&A, says: “We didn’t restrict ourselves or depict particular events or particular types of people, in keeping with the V&A’s collecting remit and broad approach to photography. It was a question of choosing groups of photographs that would work well in dialogue with each other that dealt with overlapping themes.”
The exhibition takes in J.D. Okhai Ojeikere’s visual catalogues of traditional Nigerian hairstyles to Normski’s celebration of black British youth culture, welding Afro-Carribean, American and distinctly London influences.
Kenlock’s photographs of Caribbean people resemble studio portraits; intact they are taken among the subject’s belongings with a sense of pride in putting down roots.
This mixture of styles gives lie to the idea of the black British experience as a singular, definable idea; instead, we’re presented with a multitude of distinct voices.
Notions of self-representation are key to the project. “I think there are many examples that one can look at in the history of photography (and more broadly the history of art) of black people being represented by others, not having a chance to represent themselves,” says Weiss.
The shift this represents, the black object becoming the black subject, is subtle. There is a relaxed warmth in the street photography of Charlie Phillips, documenting his West London haunts with affection. Similarly, Dennis Morris’s evocative capturing of 1970s Hackney brims with empathy. In his photograph, Dignity in Poverty, he presents the harsh reality faced by many post-war Caribbean migrants, but without the voyeuristic touch often seen in work dealing with similar ground.
Self-portraiture is something of a sub-theme, with Armet Francis’ tender yet assertive self-portrait leading the exhibit. There’s a similar declarative aspect to Yinka Shonibare’s series, Diary of a Victorian Dandy, shooting himself as the protagonist in a series of playfully louche photographs loosely based on a series of paintings by William Hogarth.
A post-colonial palimpsest of sorts, Shonibare’s daring recasting becomes an act of defiance, changing the setting from the original 18th-century inspiration to the Victorian era — the height of African colonialism.
Maxine Walker’s more personal self-portraits question the mutability of the black feminine image and the politics therein. She alludes to the coiled potential residing in self-representation in her oral history, remarking: “I took the button so I had the power.”
Weiss agrees, saying: “Self-portraiture is the ultimate form of self representation, not just one black person photographing a black subject but completely ‘taking the power’, as Maxine Walker has said. I think that can be a very important act, of claiming the power to represent.”
One of the goals of the project was to “raise awareness of the contribution of black Britons to British culture, society and the art of photography”, says Weiss.
But the exhibition manages to go further, illuminating the inner lives of a part of British society that rarely get the chance to tell their own stories. But Staying Power is also a testament to the malleable qualities of a photograph. It can be a provocation, a document of proof and perhaps most importantly a message sent to family oceans away, telling them we are doing well and we are here to stay.
Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s is on at the V&A Museum until 24 May, with a concurrent exhibition at the BCA, on display until 30 June.