Friday, 13 March 2015

Black Cultural Archives

1 Windrush Square
Brixton, SW2 1EF

Wednesday March 11th 2015

A sunny spring morning saw us strolling through Windrush Square to the Black Cultural Archives whose premises have only been open a few months. However it took 33 years for the idea for an archive which found its genesis in the 1981 Brixton riots to come to its own home in 2014 and a very beautiful home it is. Windrush Square is a very pleasant open space, set a little back from the main road and endless stream of buses which divides Brixton – and the building has been lovingly restored with a sparkly new and very accessible entrance.  The library/archives etc. are housed on the upper floors with a small exhibition space on the ground floor, and that was our destination today. Fittingly, if you think about the 33 year wait, the exhibition is called ‘Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s.’
The title is even more applicable when you follow the photos and history and realise this a community very much here to stay, integral to British life but with progress yet to make. The exhibition is also the result of a long-term collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum though it is a little hard to find it on their website at the moment, obsessed as they currently are with Alexander McQueen. The exhibition title is borrowed from an earlier book, published 1984, which traces the history of black people in the UK from essentially Tudor times and the start of the slave trade.

The exhibition however focuses on the power of photography to look at the more recent aspects of this long history. The photographs are both documentary and posed. The captions explain quite clearly the origins and careers of the individual photographers – some specialising in fashion, others in reportage, with work appearing in journals and newspapers. Their origins too cover the span of Caribbean islands.  Each photograph is also put into a context of the Black British community’s contemporary experience – for example, the very striking young men posing outside the Black Power House in Brixton. Power is seen equally in the pride showing off new hair styles/clothes and music systems,  all aspects of culture taken for granted and reflected daily for the white population  in the white British press, which so rarely (or joyfully) depicts the Black British experiences. Chilling still are the images of overt racism in the notes posted in ‘Rooms To Let’.

The group of coloured photos, carefully composed, on the end wall show a series where models are posed with stereotypical images of the black community – water melons/sugar cane against a very English-looking country background to highlight the power of image by making overt the subliminal messages.

We found the small exhibition thought provoking for the way in which it showcased at once talented black photographers and their powerful subjects (in both senses of both words).

The Archive is well positioned to enable anyone passing through Brixton to drop in and appreciate what I am sure will be a series of interesting little exhibitions.

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