By Ruairidh MacLean
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Ruairidh MacLean on black pride in the arts.
Issue 298

‘The spectre of a storm is haunting the western world… the great storm, the coming black revolution…’ Quoted as part of the Back to Black exhibition.

These words, with their conscious echoing of The Communist Manifesto, reflect the sense of possibility and political struggle that ran through communities of the African Diaspora throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The explosion of the civil rights movement in the US gave birth to a generation of African Americans hungry for new ideas about their place in the world, the nature of their ‘blackness’ and above all about the kind of world they wanted to live in. The Back to Black exhibition is an attempt to paint a picture of the ways in which this struggle expressed itself in art and popular culture.

The theme of identity is prevalent throughout the collection. There is a strong sense of a community that is struggling to redress the experience of its objectification, to represent itself rather than being reliant on the representation of a hostile, predominantly white culture. Barkley L Hendricks’s paintings, particularly Sir Charles and Lawdy Mama seem to be positing an alternative image of the black persona. Lawdy Mama, which has as its subject a young black woman with a huge afro/halo, staring out at us defiantly from a sheer plain of gold leaf, is clearly evoking the religious iconography of the Catholic ‘Madonna’. There is interplay in this section, entitled ‘Premonitions’, between representations of black people in art and the world of fashion and style.

Far more interesting is the section entitled ‘The World Is a Ghetto’. There are some fantastic paintings in the collection by Ernie Barnes. Like most of the painters and sculptures in the exhibition, his work is seeking to express itself as a non-European perspective, as part of an African tradition reborn in the western world. You can see the legacy of African masks in the pouting faces of The Sugar Shack, and of African figurines in the stretching skeletal limbs of New Heights. What is really interesting about this section though is its concern for the everyday lives of the Diaspora living in Jamaica, Britain and America, especially in photography. These range from Ramore Bearden’s brilliant photomontage of 1960s ghetto life to Dowaud Bey’s photographs of blacks living in Britain in the late 1970s. Horace Ove also has a photo in this section of Michael X, one of the figures of Britain’s troubled black power movement, being ‘interviewed’ by members of the media. I guarantee you almost no one my age will have heard of Michael, but the picture is hilarious.

Video screens are fixed to the wall in various parts of the exhibition, displaying 15-minute sections from low budget art house flicks like The Black Orpheus to the Jamaican reggae epics like The Harder They Come and Rockers. In the ‘Exultation/Blaxploitation’ section, however, you get to sit down and watch some longer extracts. Included are controversial ‘Blaxploitation’ thrillers like the infamous Sweetbacks Badass Song, the incomprehensibly barmy Blacula, and Hollywood’s sadly successful attempt to cash in on the action, Shaft. These films show up the huge contradictions of the period. On the one hand they were the first appearances of the ghetto vernacular on the big screen – they expressed the hatred and distrust black people had of the police and the corruption of the authorities. And the protagonists were always invincibly cool black men. On the other hand, quite apart from the often misogynistic representation of women, they underlined a lack of confidence in the community to create real change, and as the 1970s drew to a close increasingly represented an escape into a fantasy world.

The last big display of the exhibition is entitled ‘By Any Means Necessary’, and it contains most of the really interesting exhibits. Throughout, the artists toe a thin line between the aesthetic qualities of art and unabashed propaganda, between a radical activism and radical forms of expression. Sometimes this is less than successful, such as the rather dry carving of a huge wooden fist in the case of Black Unity by Elizabeth Catlel. At other times the result is absolutely inspired, like Joe Overstreets’ The New Jemmima in which a stereotypified black housemaid (or ‘jemmima’) lets loose with a machine gun. It was also especially true of the series ‘Free George Jackson’ by Llewellyn Xavier. Jackson was a man originally jailed for the theft of $70 who became politicised in prison and was brutally treated for agitating among the prisoners. He was eventually killed, allegedly trying to escape. His case was famously championed by the Black Panthers. In his work Xavier manages to combine his struggle to bring the case to the public’s attention and the horrific nature of Jackson’s imprisonment. The end result is that the artist’s political struggle emerges as both an act of brilliant polemic and challenging aestheticism.

Back On Black is full of gems like this, including the truly disturbing film Theatre Of Revolt and duds as well like the final exhibit Lost In Music where the viewer watches a large screen sift through a silent display of various album covers, supposedly to reflect the wide ranging influence of African Diaspora on world music, although it felt to me like one of the curators was just showing off their record collection.

Back to Black is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London until September

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