A review: Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience, 1950s – 1990s
What is Staying Power? One dictionary definition says: ‘the quality or ability that allows someone or something to continue to be effective, successful, popular, etc., for a long period of time’ .
I think that is certainly an apt way to summarise the experience of black Caribbean people in the UK over the years and so is an appropriate title for an exhibition currently on at the Victoria and Albert Museum which is inspired by Peter Fyrer’s reference text Staying Power, The History of Black People in Britain.
As I walked in the door into the low lit room at the exhibition, the first photo that greeted me was a self portrait by Jamaican photographer Armet Francis who moved to London at the age of 10 in 1955.
The photo, which is called ‘Self portrait in Mirror (1964)’ is black and white, crisp and studious and it shows a young black boy, with what was probably one of his first cameras, taking a snap of himself in the mirror in an early type of ‘selfie’. In this one image the entire point of this display of photographs is encapsulated – look into the mirror, as a black person in the UK, and what do you see?
I immediately connected with the message behind this image because this is what this entire blog is about. Who are black British people? What is our history in this country? How have black Caribbean people contributed to the UK? Why do some of us feel like we don’t belong? What can we do to feel more British? Can you be black and British or are these two concepts incompatible? The list goes on and on.
The images in this exhibition go on to highlight this struggle for the black Caribbean population in the UK from the 1950s to the 1990s but the images are not depressing or downtrodden just real and simple. They show black people growing up in the UK and trying to find their place, trying to work out who they are and trying to understand how and where they fit in.
The photos by Neil Kenlock, showing ordinary black people in their homes in the 1970s with their flares, afros, swirly carpets, loud wallpaper, large TVs and dial-up telephones took me right back to my childhood growing up on a council estate in Fulham.At that time it didn’t matter to me what colour my skin was, it only mattered whether I had the latest rah-rah skirt or how long I could keep up a hula hoop.
These images brought back those memories when the question of identity, history or ancestry was the farthest thing from my mind.
But of course the undercurrent of a changing Britain is ever present in the background and two photographs in the exhibition clearly demonstrate the multicultural society that was slowly evolving in the UK over the decades primarily because of the growing presence of black Caribbean people.
The first image by Charlie Phillips entitled ‘Notting Hill couple’, taken in 1967 would have undoubtedly caused a stir at that time.
When you look closely at the young white woman and the contrasting, black man next to her with his arm on her shoulder, you can see that they are in a relationship and their defiant gaze into the camera gives you some insight into the racism and discrimination they must have faced because of their love.
It makes you wonder what they went through but it also makes you think how far we have come now, as mixed race relationships today are nothing out of the ordinary.
The next image, taken in the 1970s by Dutch photographer Al Vandenberg, shows a mixed group of school girls standing on a street corner totally at ease with one another, posing while linking arms.
This photo also reminded me of my secondary school years in the 1990s with a group of friends of all races, faiths and backgrounds, sharing life and experiences without the concerns of racism or division.
I wondered, as I looked at this photo, why we lose that ability to just accept people because they make us laugh or like the same boy band, and then as we grow up increasingly separate ourselves from each other based on class, colour or religion.
So we move on into the 1980s and 1990s with pictures of ‘rude boyz and gals’ on the streets and outside tower blocks, in clothes that are clearly inspired by Africa but also borrow from ghetto culture in the States. These images show how, by this time, first generation black Brits were grappling with who they really are and what they should use to shape their identity.
I saw in these photos, how a chronic lack of positive role models in the home and the media left a void, and obviously different people with different needs, filled this void in different ways.
Hip hop artist Normski demonstrates in his images the alternative, street life that was developing at this time as young black people used music and fashion as an outlet and a way to show that if society would not accept them, they at least belonged to each other.
The exhibition does not move into the 2000s and the present day, which is a shame as the story it has partly-narrated, is far from over.
I am proof, along with countless others that I have met, of the conflict that still exists between being black and British. The questions about identity, culture, history, assimilation, acceptance and belonging have not gone away.
But ultimately this exhibition left me with a hopeful and uplifting feeling that black people in the UK are at least on the right track.
This powerful and moving collection of images show there is room to be black and British and one does not have to cancel out the other, in fact, when the two positively combine they do not just change individual lives, they change a nation.
Staying Power slideshow:
References / further reading: