A Critical Narrative; A sociological reflection upon two photographic exhibitions in London exploring race within the Black community

By Holly Wayman

As the end of my undergraduate degree in sociology draws closer I am beginning to realise that although the teaching and endless hours in the library will stop, the outlook that all this has provided me certainly will not. The three-year investment has not only shaped my academic understanding of the society that operates around us, but has more broadly applied a permanent filter, which draws the sociological aspects out of what, at first glance, can seem distinctly ordinary. The exhibitions Stan Frim Inna Inglan’: Black Diaspora in London, 1960s-70s and Vron Ware: 13 Dead and Nothing said further confirmed this notion to me as the photographs, whilst being artistically engaging, held strong sociological messages by reflecting upon the role of race and racism within the Black community in recent history. Both exhibitions captured the lived experience of second generation Black Britons living in London from the 60s to the 80s. This draws the two exhibitions together and after exploring both I feel it necessary to touch upon this relationship.

On entering the Tate Britain exhibition, it was evident that through the prism of race, a diverse collection of content was displayed. As a compilation of eight different photographers’ work, these pieces could be admired both in relation to one another and alone adding a real sense of dimension. From what had initially seemed like a passing thought, moving around the room I soon realised that this diversity within the display was an apt and potentially purposeful reflection of the multiplicity and complexity of experience within the Black community in London. Looking at the whole collection in this way, taking in photographs of interracial couples, family life, fashions and entertainment alongside more overt depictions of racial exclusion, revealed the thread that I felt was intensely important – the essence of the everyday. The multitude of experiences depicted does not detract from the marginalisation of the Black community, that holds a deep seated historical connection to the group, but rather reminds us that racism is not an outside force but entrenched within the everyday. Racism is not fixed but fluid and does not prevent the living of life but becomes a characteristic of it. It is a restrictive pressure that amalgamates and has effects in sometimes more subtle but complex ways than it is given credit for. The experience of exclusion was clear without overtly and exclusively depicting racism and I truly appreciated this. The depictions of the Black communities’ experience was not just associated with racism alone. I feel that a simplistic equation of Black culture with racism would have omitted and underappreciated the fact that identity in any community is multifaceted and essentially played out day to day. This multifarious coverage was therefore what took my interest and the breadth of content was insightful for revealing key undercurrents.

Extending upon this, the photographers all used people as the focal point of their photographs and I noticed that the collection represented both men and women at different ages and stages of their lives encapsulating an intersectional element. By placing the attention on the subjects in the frame, the photographs felt intensely personal but by displaying a wide range of demographics it was clear that the meaning was linked to Black identity as a whole not solely to its manifestations on an individualistic level. Nevertheless, at times I felt this intimacy to such an extent that I could imagine the photographs being more suited sitting on someone’s mantelpiece than on the walls of a world-renowned art venue. The work of Colin Jones resonated particularly with me for encapsulating this multiplicity of experiences as seen in his depictions of the lives of young people living in The Black House, a community project and hostel, between 1973-6.

These three powerful stills pictured above, summarise to me the very essence of the exhibition. The first two share a similar strong stance, holding direct eye contact with the camera and in doing so were particularly engaging. They give the fundamentally ‘Otherised’ group a specific human face and neither exude a sense of weakness. I thought this triggered a greater understanding to the collection’s title which references the poem It Dread inna Inglan by Linton Kwesi Johnson which expresses the resilience from the Black community surrounding the desire to stay in Britain despite adversity. I felt the female figure perfectly reflected the interplay between social and economic exclusion associated to the wider group as the gas in the backdrop is clearly lit for warmth and the location within the domestic sphere makes it feel exceptionally authentic. While this photograph alludes to a sense of femininity, the second photograph is distinctly masculine in feel. The oversized collar is an iconic 70s statement and the urban feel translated through the solid brick wall led me to think about how as diasporic citizens, the individuals are not acculturating but are accultured, trying to live in London as anyone else would. I felt the trio added real sentiment, portraying real qualitative depth by also showing the residents living together. This reflects the point that through the commonality of race this exclusion was experienced by many.

The second exhibition displayed at Goldsmiths University consolidated this notion of solidarity within the Black British community. This exhibition of Vron Ware’s previously unseen photographs from the Black People’s Day of Action concerns a pivotal point in Black British history where there was a large demonstration regarding the inadequate response to the New Cross Road fire in 1981, and the media coverage thereafter. I was particularly drawn to one photograph for its poignancy and succinct reflection of the political outcry challenging institutionalised racism.

The sign was used as a key source of political rhetoric within the march, referencing the Stardust fire that broke out at a nightclub in Ireland that resulted in fatalities the same year. Margaret Thatcher, the then prime minister, sent her personal condolences to families involved but ignored the thirteen affected who were a stone’s throw away within the capital, to much controversy. To me, this photograph pertinently raises the question of what it means to be British and what it has meant in the past on a political level. The image manages to simultaneously embody the structural racial divisions directed at the Black community as well as the growth and effect of collective social action. As I looked at the photographs I could hear quite coincidentally someone playing the piano in an adjacent room and I found this fitting in a sense. I felt the music helped to build upon the message found within the succession of the pictures that highlights the protest day as a moment born out of devastation but also one of great significance.

It was as I was coming away from the second exhibition that I began to reflect upon the issues that I felt linked the two displays. For me, this fundamentally came from the exploration of citizenship that I felt arose from the photographers’ work. Both pieces innovatively raise questions about belonging and entitlement through their pictures by highlighting how racial exclusion infringes upon rights. I noticed Stan Frim Inna Inglan’, depicts citizenship in an individualistic sense by appealing to its everyday incarnation whereas Vron Ware: 13 Dead and Nothing Said, showcases its operation in terms of collective action. Between the two displays I thought about how this is reflective of the social and political dimensions of citizenship within identities and this strengthened my own understanding about the Black experience by demonstrating the different levels of exclusion. I also felt drawing the two together was useful for providing insight into how the Black communities experience has changed over time. In doing so, it enabled me to identify a shift in the photographs setting from the private to the public sphere that perhaps mimics the progression of the Black movement within the UK.

The similarities between the exhibitions interests can be explained by their support from the archive Autograph ABP. The organisation aims to bring underrepresented groups to the fore within art and explore surrounding issues of cultural identity. Whilst I am certain that the two examples of their work that have been discussed succeed in achieving this, it prompted some further thought within myself regarding the wider art world. I have become far more aware of the fact that artistic depictions of BAME groups are underappreciated and in the minority. I noticed that even when reflecting upon the physical position of the displays demonstrates this fact. To view the exhibition at the Tate Britain you have to navigate through a maze of 15th century paintings and at Goldsmiths the pieces are displayed in a corridor of the University. This means both could quite literally be walked past. But the themes and questions around multiculturalism raised by the photographs are too important to be missed particularly within our current political climate. I feel exhibitions like these hold a vital role within the arts for visually expressing cultural identities in a way that text and other exhibitions have not and I hope to see a growth in work grounded in this.

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