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Saturday, 1 November 2014

Guest Post: Leafing through Naked Bodies

I spent a lot of time this summer leafing through pictures of naked men.  I admit it was not what I expected when I volunteered to help catalogue at London Metropolitan Archive (LMA) and I could see my supervisor’s quiet amusement at my serious, but sometimes flushed, approach to cataloguing them. It is not most people’s idea of what is held in an archive, nor of what archivists do.

The images were part of the archive of photographer Ajamu’s artistic life and work, who, alongside filmmaker/ theatre director/writer, Topher Campbell, founded the rukus! Federation Limited, and instigated an on-going project to collect material to ensure a lasting record of the lives and achievements of the black LGBT community, whose contribution can go unrecognised, and stigmatised, by heterosexual, white LGBT and black communities.  For Ajamu “the struggle for visibility continues and the [project]…is part of that struggle as it celebrates and testifies to the experience of the black LGBT community, putting us where we belong - in the centre of the frame”.

Ajamu’s photography challenges and transgresses conventional depictions of black male bodies and sexuality, in the past in the face of censorship and controversy. 

There was a sort of intimacy to the gentle handling of these sometimes fragile images of a naked person.   That the images are often tender, touching, and often intentionally funny, added to the sense of familiarity with lives briefly glimpsed through the wry eyes of this photographer, though the lives depicted are very different from my own.
Circus Master h, Ajamu

Circus Master e, Ajamu 

Widening that engagement with these lives was one of the reasons volunteer cataloguing of the archive was a conditions of lodging the archive with LMA, increasing its visibility and as well as widening opportunities, during the process of storing it.  The completed catalogue will be available from March 2015 for people to take inspiration from what will continue to be a living and highly visual archive.

The rukus! archive is a great example of a community actively ensuring that their history cannot go the way of much of black or LGBT history in the past; of lives and achievements that have been stigmatised, hidden, ignored, unrecognised or rewritten and systematically forgotten as if of no historical value.  It is down to the relationship built over time between rukus! and LMA that the archive has come to be lodged there and archives like LMA, play a key role in working with living communities to ensure that lived experiences that might go unrecognised are collected.  To a novice like me it is a reminder that archives like LMA, and many others, are not necessarily the storehouses of long dead material but the keepers of a society’s memory of itself, and they make decisions about what, who and how we remember our lives, as well as those of people who lived and played – and also loved leather - in the past.
October has been Black History month which has kicked off a huge array of events and exhibitions around the capital, the product of year round efforts to bring black history, cultural life and political struggle into focus. Archive have been very much in evidence, not only in supporting and undertaking projects to collect, preserve and bring together scarce records of black presence and experiences in the past, but also in working with visual artists to make visible, and bring to life, this shared history for audiences. 

The challenge for exhibitions is to not only to bring often rare objects to life, but do it in a way that helps people challenge their existing assumptions; to help people not only imagine the past, but re-imagine it without the bias of a constructed history.  So the Black Cultural Archive’s current exhibition Re-imagine: Black Women in Britain, for example, uses a film (Peripeteia’ John Akomfrah 2012), inspired by sixteenth century portraits by Albrecht Durer, showing glimpses of a black man and woman in early modern dress in a stark rural landscape on a cold and windy day, that invites audiences to construct their own imagined narrative of these lives whose true stories have been ‘lost to the winds of time’.  The film is not an attempt to show the reality of what their lives may have been – it looked more like Lancashire than Portugal, where they were drawn, to me - but it brought them into a familiar British rural environment, in which black people are also often treated as ‘out of place’, as they are in history. 

You are also asked to experience the everyday presence of black women through history as far back as Roman Britain, by looking into the eyes of the digital reconstruction (by Aaron Watson at the University of Reading) of the face of a high status 4th century woman of African origin buried in York, displayed on an LED screen.  It is a modern face, using a very modern medium, which immediately brings an ancient presence into the room alongside the other photographic portraits of Black British women from more recent history. And it’s a beautiful face.
My personal favourite, of course, was a new commission from Ajamu.  His photograph of real life Dorothea Smart in nineteenth century naval uniform re-imagines a record of the first black woman in the British Navy, recorded as Seaman William Brown, discharged as ‘found to be female’.   The picture has all the intimacy, pride and humour of many of his images as she makes a very unconvincing man but a very commanding presence.  There is something appropriate in finding that an archive has commissioned a community archivist, engaged in ensuring a record of the present, to make a past life visible through a portrait which will doubtless be included in the archive of his own life as a visual artist. 

These projects are only two of a number that have  happening around the capital, and beyond, exploring the rich variety of lived experiences of black people in Britain, many working with archives to bring these lives to light.  Black History month in providing a focus for events and exhibitions is a great opportunity to get a snapshot of the variety of work going on.  I hope that this blog inspires you to explore them, some of which are highlighted below:

Selection of ongoing Black History Events/ Exhibitions
Galleries, Archives and Museums Exhibitions
Black chronicles, Rivington Place  An exhibition of portraits of black people, part of an ongoing project by Autograph ABP to uncover black presence in photographic archives - accompanied by a series of events.  
Re-imagine: Black Women in Britain, Black Cultural Archive, Brixton
Jamaica Hidden Histories  An educational project, by Full Spectrum Productions, exploring the history and culture of Jamaica, and its links with Britain.   The Lorna Holder 1980s fashion archive, head of fashion at Davies and Field from 1979 – 1986, was recently exhibited at RichMix (once home to the company) and is available at London Metropolitan Archive through training sessions.
Retired Caribbean Nurses and the NHS at Hackney Museum and Archives -- exhibition created by Black Women in the Arts.  This archive will also be lodged at London Metropolitan Archive.
Wangechi Mutu, Victoria Miro - one of the foremost contemporary 'Afrofuturist' African artists, challenges the uneasy interplay of the ethnographic and erotic in visual culture.
'Putting the Black in the Union Jack? Black British History and Education', 8th November 2014, Bloomsbury Theatre.  A collaborative project with University College London and Hackney Museum and Archive on ‘The Legacies of British Slave-ownership’.
Local Reflections: Nelson Mandela and the Haringey Anti-Apartheid Movement 1 October-21 December 2014 - Artefacts, documents and photographs from the Haringey community. East Wing Gallery  -  You can also see the anti-apartheid banner from Parliament Square displayed as part of Disobedient objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Olaudah Equiano: The Enslaved African, Sutton House 26th-29th November. - performance created by Total Insight Theatre
The Scottsboro Boys transfers to the Garrick Theatre following a sold out run at the Young Vic.
The House That Will Not Stand , Tricycle Theatre (9th October to  22nd November) Marcus Gardley's drama about jealousy, desire, murder and voodoo.
Full listings can be found:
London Borough Black History websites

Jacqui Karn (@JKheritage) is a social researcher,writer, history lover and museum volunteer extraordinaire with a particular interest in museums engaging with community outreach and social issues. 

Thank you for your contribution Jacqui! - The Ministry

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