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Staying Power: No place like home

EXHIBIT: Part of the Al Vandenberg collection [© The Estate of Al Vandenberg / Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

IT WAS not a smooth transition.

When migrants from Africa and the Caribbean began arriving in Britain to start new lives, they were viewed with suspicion by their white neighbours and faced blatant discrimination at every level of society.

Undeterred, they pressed on. Taking jobs they were over-qualified for, turning the other cheek when they were racially abused in the streets, sharing box rooms made for children – and paying handsomely for the privilege.

But, one battle at a time, these stoic citizens helped make Britain a more tolerant society and without doubt a more vibrant one.

They had what journalist and author Peter Fryer called ‘staying power’ as highlighted in his seminal text of the same name, which reveals how people of African descent have profoundly influenced and shaped events in Britain over the course of the past two thousand years.

It also served as the inspiration for the Staying Power project conceived in 2008 and culminating in two special exhibitions on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the Black Cultural Archives (BCA).

Curator Dr Kim Keith told The Voice: “These are not some random photographs cobbled together. It’s a carefully thought through process using images that are now in the V&A’s collection of fine art photography.

“From that group, we have selected images to give viewers a glimpse into the Black British experience over the past 50/60 years. It shows some of the significant political occurrences, interesting aspects of the Black British community and gives insight into some of the events that have shaped black history in Britain.”

As well as preserving images of black people in Britain, the project was also an opportunity to engage with and celebrate the work of black photographers such as Neil Kenlock, Normski, Dennis Morris, Gavin Watson, Al Vandenberg and the artist Yinka Shonibare.

Dr Keith continued: “It was amazing to be able to ask what they were thinking when they set up a particular image and what it was like when they were at a particular event or why the subject was significant.

“Through their lens they represent that slice of history and through their experience we are able to gain insight into a particular scene and question if it still relevant. One of the most striking images is Neil Kenlocks’s image with the ‘Keep Britain white’ graffiti. It helps you to ask questions that tell you about life today.”

Dr Keith, who was born in America, said it was important to celebrate Britain’s unique history. “The histories [in Britain and the United States] overlap and have some similarities which can be traced back to colonial times and the transatlantic slave trade, but Britain had colonies and as a result people from Caribbean and African countries with ties to Britain came here here. That is different to my ancestors who were taken from Africa and brought to America and have no intermediary identity based on colonialism,” she explained.

She added: “When Fryer wrote Staying Power, it spoke of a tenacity, a message that black people were here in Britain and a part of this country. There is a really rich history here that we are trying to depict and it’s something to be proud of. It’s about celebrating that history every day not just one month a year. It’s about digging deep and seeing how black history relates to the whole of British history and why it is important for everyone to learn about it whether you’re American, British, white or black.”

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Pic 1 - Untitled (Keep Britain White graffiti), 1974 by Neil Kenlock

Neil Kenlock came to London in 1963 from Jamaica. He became the official photographer of the British Black Panthers and was a photojournalist for the West Indian World newspaper, which is where the image Untitled (Keep Britain White graffiti) was taken on assignment. Kenlock asked Barbara Gray to pose in front of the door to the International Personnel Training Centre, which was an employment agency headed by David Udah, a key member of the British Black Panther movement. This racist attack was one of the many incidents that Kenlock captured in his determination to portray pride in the face of prejudice.

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Pic 2 - Mike Eghan, Piccadilly Circus, 1967 by James Barnor

Mike Eghan, Piccadilly Circus is a portrait of the BBC’s African Service broadcaster in the beating heart of London, and he is seen embodying the ‘swinging 60s’ style with his skinny tie, narrow-toed lace-ups, and the collar turned up on his insulated mac. Eghan was one of the most popular Ghanaian voices in both the UK and Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. James Barnor worked as a freelance photographer for magazines such as Drum and Flamingo in the 1960s, and he is known for his portraiture in both Ghana and Britain.

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Pic 3 - Fashion Shoot, Brixton Market, 1973 by Armet Francis

Born in St Elizabeth, Jamaica, in 1945, photographer Armet Francis moved to London at the age of ten. By his mid-teens, Francis was working as an assistant for a West End photographic studio. His early photographs show him experimenting with the camera as a technical device and a tool for self-representation.

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Pic 4 - Cynthia M Prescod (Mum) at home in Primrose Hill, London, 1986 by Normski

Normski (ne Norman Anderson) was born in Camden, northwest London. His mother gave him his first camera at the age of nine and he began to create a personal record of community life in Camden. This image of his mother Cynthia holding her passport speaks to issues of identity, belonging, and citizenship that are personal and individual yet familiar and shared by many former commonwealth citizens. Cynthia was born in Jamaica and moved to Britain during colonial rule. The British Nationality Act of 1948 granted British citizenship to all people of the Commonwealth, recognising their right to work and settle in the UK by providing them with British passports. By 1981, after increasing restriction on migration from the former British colonies, the act was rewritten so that only people of British citizenship acquired by birth in the UK, descent, or naturalisation had the automatic right to live in Britain.

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Pic 5 - Pinky, 2001 by Jennie Baptiste

Jennie Baptiste is a Londoner of St Lucian descent and her work, inspired by youth culture and music, was included in the exhibition Black British Style at the V&A in 2005. She has photographed many musicians in London and New York, mainly rappers, hip-hop, and R&B performers, as well as documenting the dancehall scene and the Maroon community in Jamaica. Pinky is a Dance Hall Queen who lives in Brixton and is well known within the community for her appearance – she is always coiffed and adorned in pink from head to toe.

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Pic 6 - Admiral Ken Sound System, Club Row, Shoreditch, London, 1974 by Dennis Morris

Dennis Morris was born in Jamaica and moved to Hackney at the age of four. He began taking photographs at eight years old, and at 11 he had his first image published in the Daily Mirror. His hobby of photographing community events such as christenings, church services, and birthday parties, evolved into a professional pursuit when Bob Marley asked him to photograph his UK tour when Morris was just 14 years old.
Morris’ Admiral Ken Sound System shows the collective who were in residence at the Bouncing Ball Club in Peckham, south London, in the 1960s. Admiral Ken is in the foreground and according to Morris “the boxer Dennis Andries, who years later went on to become world light heavyweight champion”, is the man standing on the left of the van.

Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience (1950s-1990s) is on show at the Black Cultural Archives Jan 15 to June 30, 2015 and The V&A, Feb 16 - May 24, 2015

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