Black, British and....

Author:Highet, Juliet
Position:Diaspora: UK RACE RELATIONS - Staying Power: Photographs of the Black British Experience, 1950s-1990s exhibition in London

A unique and powerfully telling photo exhibition is currently the talk of town in the British capital--London. Juliet Highet went to see Staying Power,; a must-see art festival that reveals what it has really been like to be black and British in the UK in the past 50 years. She highlights some of the work showcased.

Dennis Morris, one of the photographers taking part in the thought-provoking Staying Power: Photographs of the Black British Experience: 1950s-1990s exhibition in London, says: "I was taking photographs at a pivotal time for black people in Britain, politically and culturally. Suddenly we weren't coloured people any more--we were black. It was a question of pride and self-definition. I see it now as a pioneering time, a time of great struggle and change."

The words brought back memories of my asking my half-Nigerian son when he was a child why he described himself as "black", rather than "brown". He answered that black people accept him, whereas not all whites did.

This exhibition covers 50 years of the often turbulent history of black people in Britain and how they have dealt with issues like discrimination, being mixed race, enslavement, and ultimately, being able to celebrate the triumph of multiculturalism. This long-overdue exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) is complemented by another photographic show at Black Cultural Archives (BCA), based in Brixton, south London, which includes oral histories, from the photographers themselves, their relatives, and the people they have depicted in their images.

Staying power

These photographs pose many questions--how much are black British people integrated in society now? How real is multiculturalism, especially out of London? As one enters the V & A exhibition the first photograph is by Jamaican-born Armet Francis, entitled "Self-portrait in Mirror". In the background a white woman is looking at him, apparently adoringly. Taken in 1964, when "mixed" relationships were regarded with suspicion, if not outright hostility, as my own father made clear, Britain was on the cusp of great social change. The questions and themes covered in Staying Power demonstrate the powerful role that published photographs and photographers have, not just as commentators, but also as shapers of opinion and history.

The photographs and narratives encapsulate extraordinary times of cultural change in Britain through a myriad of themes: from feelings of belonging or alienation, politics and...

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