a look at the history of black british culture at the v&a

We talk to the curator of Staying Power, Photographs of Black British Experience about the representation and documentation of the black British experience.

by Lynette Nylander
17 February 2015, 4:00pm

Al Vandenberg, High Street Kensington from the series On a Good Day © The Estate of Al Vandenberg Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When the Empire Windrush hit British shores in Tilbury on the morning of June 22, 1948, bringing with it 492 black Jamaican passengers, it marked the mass immigration of foreign people to the United Kingdom in search of jobs and hopes of a more prosperous life. Throughout the 50s and 60s, this mass migration continued and in turn changed the social framework of the UK forever. In the recent 2011 census, black Britons accounted for more than 3% of the total population of the United Kingdom and this number looks to swell in the next 50 years as third and fourth generation black Britons continue to contribute to the country's infrastructure lain down by the ancestors who came from Africa and the Caribbean.

J. D. Okhai Ojeikere, Untitled, HG 423-04, from the series Headties, gelatin silver print, Nigeria, 2004. © The Estate of J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere Victoria and Albert, London 

Having noticed that work from black photographers or that documents black people was under-represented in the museum's photography collection (of which there are over half a million photographs), the V&A partnered with the Black Cultural Archives to present Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s -1990s. The exhibition is an intimate look at the black British experience, exploring themes including style, representation, appropriation, family and race and features iconic black photographers such as J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, Al Vandenberg, Charlie Phillips and Armet Francis. The exhibition, which has been seven years in the making, saw the V&A acquire over 50 photographs documenting the experiences of black people in the latter half of the 20th century, as well oral histories from the photographers themselves, their subjects, family and friends to compliment the photographs and help further underscore the cultural significance of black people have contributed to the success of modern day Britain.

i-D sat down with the curator of the exhibition, the V&A's Marta Weiss, to talk about what this collection means in the discussion black identity in the UK.

Normski, African Homeboy - Brixton, London, 1987, printed 2011, c-type print. © Normski Victoria and Albert, London 

There are so many photographers who have documented black British culture, what makes this collection of photographs so significant? For many of these photographers, their work had not been exhibited or collected by museums before. Many of these prints may have been made from old negatives, but they are new prints created specifically for the V&A. We try to collect what are called vintage prints, which are photographs that were made by photographers at the time that they were made, but for many of these photographers they simply didn't exist because of the time they were making photographs. They weren't making them to be hung in galleries. So that's part of the story of how the collection came to exist.

The collecting took place over a number of different years and in a number of different ways. We acquired photographs directly from photographers and from galleries. The contribution that Black Cultural Archives made to the project was to help identify photographers and to use their own networks and connections for a potential inclusion in the project.

What is the meaning of the name Staying Power? What does it mean to you?
It comes from Peter Fryer's book. That's the inspiration for it. It's the name we gave to the project right from the beginning. The subtitle of that book is The History of Black People in Britain.That book goes back to the very beginnings of Britain's black presence in Roman Times right up until the present day. That's where it comes from but it's really a point of departure for us. It's about the ongoing presence of black people in Britain and the power relates to their significance and all the significant contributions black people have made to British culture.

Armet Francis, Self-Portrait in Mirror, London, 1964, gelatin silver print © Armet Francis Victoria and Albert, London 

What would you say you've deduced about British culture from working on the exhibition? I know the exhibition stops at the 90s but I think the message is still relevant.
I think the photographs that are in this exhibition - because the concurrent exhibition at the BCA has a different focus to this one - have a lot of emphasis on fashion and style. I think you can see how influential black style has been. We also have photographs that were actually made in Africa of hairstyles and head ties and then we also have photographs of people here in Britain with head ties on so you can kind of see the inspiration that people can take from women's fashion. There are a lot of sub themes; one of them is music, which is evident in the beat boys and female rappers from the 80s. It's also evident in the style of patrons of the Cue Club in Charlie Phillips' photos from the 60s or Dennis Morris' photographs from the 50s of people at sound systems. I think the idea of self-representation is also really crucial, as well. We have separate examples of self-portraiture as well and photographs where we really have a sense of the process of exploring ideas about representation and identity through the very act of making a photograph.

Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s is on display at the V&A until 24 May 2015. A concurrent exhibition of the same name is showing at the Black Cultural Archives until June 2015. Admission is free of charge.



Neil Kenlock, Untitled [Young woman seated on the floor at home in front of her television set], C- type print, London, 1972 © Neil Kenlock Victoria and Albert, London 


Text Lynette Nylander

Neil Kenlock
Black British Experience
Armet Francis
Al Vandenberg
staying power
jd okhai