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Reliving the British Black Panther movement

POWERFUL: Kenlock’s work in the Images Of Protest exhibition includes images from the Black Panther women’s group

WITH protests all over the world defining 2011 – so much so that Time magazine aptly named ‘The Protester’ as their person of the year – it’s fitting that the subject is the focus of a new exhibition.

Images Of Protest focuses on the protest art of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and has been created to celebrate the people who have taken to the streets to fight for what they believe in. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the exhibition features a large collection of Black Panther images.

Neil Kenlock, the official photographer of the British Black Panther movement, has provided the exhibition with copies of some of his most iconic photographs from his 40-year career. Hoping to show the evolution of the black community through his art, the 61-year-old controversially believes that the only way to end civil unrest is to end capitalism.

“When I was in the British Black Panther movement, it was about socialism and cultural freedom,” explains the Jamaica-born activist. “We were saying the problem of the world then was the capitalist system. It created a lot of problems, such as slavery and wars.

“Now, people are losing their jobs and are concerned about the future, and there needs to be a solution to the problems. The riots we had [in the UK] last year were a result of the frustration of the people, because they cannot see a future for themselves.”

Many recent protests that have shaken foundations around the world were started as a result of financial hardship and sustained by the lack of economic fairness. Civil disobedience was also rife half a century ago because, as Kenlock explains, black people wanted freedom, and above all, to be treated fairly.

“Back in the ‘60s, things really needed to change and black people wanted change soon. We wanted freedom, we wanted rights and we wanted to be recognised as human beings. The change was not only in protests but also in the way we dressed; we had afros and wore dashikis.


Four decades of documenting black culture: Neil Kenlock complete with afro in the ‘70s, and as he appears today

“I think we were lucky to see all these changes, from black music coming into the mainstream, to the birth of the mini skirt, and the introduction of the birth control pill. People were getting freedom.”

For today’s younger generation, it is almost impossible to fathom the level of racism that black people in ‘60s Britain faced on a daily basis. The emergence of the Black Panther movement gave the UK’s ethnic minority youngsters a sense of unity and the confidence to challenge the establishment.

“We were second class citizens at the time,” Kenlock recalls. “People were calling us all sorts of names in the streets and painting graffiti everywhere. In school, there was no black history. We did every form of English history, but learnt nothing about our own. If you asked the teachers where black people came from, they would say: ‘Somewhere in Africa, up a tree,’ and that’s it. So with the Black Panther movement we had educational classes, public meeting and lectures.

“Before that, our parents used to believe the schools, the police and the courts. We would tell them that teachers were racist and that they did not give us a fair chance, but it took our parents years to see it. So we campaigned and exposed their racist actions. It was a part of my development that I am very proud of.”

The irony of being a pioneer is that the groundbreaker usually does not realise the significance of their actions until it becomes history. Such was the case for Kenlock.

“I didn’t really think my photos were important at the time. Nobody told me that one day, my work would be central to black British culture.”


Sad history: Kenlock captured a woman pointing out racist graffiti

Downplaying his intimate portraits of Bob Marley, the photographer, who was able to capture some of the most pivotal times in black British history, vividly recounts the time he met Muhammad Ali.

“Photographing Bob Marley was ok. I had the pleasure of sitting down with him in his house, talking to him, but it was nothing really. When I took the photo of Muhammad Ali, I shook. He was a massive hero.

“I remember he came with me so I could photograph him at my old school. He went through Brixton and talked to the community. It was great.”

In addition to his photography, Kenlock was involved in developing the early black British newspaper West Indian World; he was the co-founder of black magazine Root; and was the founder of London radio station Choice FM.

“When I came up with the idea of Root magazine, it was at a time when I felt there was a need for black people in this country to have positive images of themselves. Everything we had at that time was negative.
“Then, the idea of Choice FM came into it. Black people were good at singing, producing and dancing, but we didn’t own the means of delivering that. I thought, ‘why can’t we?’

“It took us seven years of campaigning to the government to allow more than one radio station in any geographical area, but we got it in the end.”

Images of Protest is at Rich Mix, London E1 from January 6-28. For more information, call 020 7613 7498 or visit www.richmix.org.uk

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