The new exhibition at London’s V&A Museum, Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s -1960s came as the result of a conscious decision by the organisation to broaden and enrich its collection, curator Marta Weiss explained at the opening yesterday. “Over the last seven years the V&A has been working with Black Cultural Archives to acquire photographs either by black photographers or which document the lives of black people in Britain,” Marta says, “a previously under-represented area in the V&A’s photographs collection.”
It’s an admirable and incredibly important effort to diversify the national collection, and it makes for a very compelling show. The artists included range from Yinka Shonibare, with his large-scale photographs of inverted traditional white colonial scenes in which he places a black man dressed as a dandy as their focal point, to J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s iconic black and white photographs of Nigerian hairstyles and headwraps.
Black identity was a key focus in putting the show together, Marta explained, from aspects like hair and clothing to the environment the subject is photographed in. This emphasis is very much evident in British photographer Normski’s vibrant street-style shots, which place Brixton’s Islam B-Boys next to an African Homeboy dressed in red and yellow Ghanaian kente cloth, reasserting the status of both.
There’s a political undertone, too: in Maxine Walker’s experimental self-portraits she uses photographic equipment, wigs and make-up to change her appearance entirely from one shot to another, even lightening the tone of her skin with different flashes, and placing the final images to look as though they were taken in a photobooth. The composition raises questions around identity photographs and immigration, and highlights the unfixed nature of her sense of identity.
Elsewhere in the show, Jamaica-born photographer Charlie Phillips’ wonderful shots of Notting Hill in the 1960s and 70s sit alongside Neil Kenlock’s photographs of Caribbean families in their homes in England, casting a gloriously retro vibe over the hazy golden images. Meanwhile, at one end of the show headphones offer up oral histories of black experience, adding a more immediate and accessible way into the subject matter. Most importantly though it’s a resolutely positive portrait of black British culture, and it marks a small but vital step by one of the UK’s grandest institutions to ensure all cultures are fairly and equally represented in the country’s archive of the arts. At last.
Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience will run at the V&A Museum until 24 May.