Dr Kimberly Keith / Staying Power
Staying Power, two concurrent exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Black Cultural Archives, are the result of a seven-year collaboration between both institutions, to acquire more images of and by black Britons for the V&A’s collection. Academic, curator and BCA trustee Kimberly Keith talks to Rachel Segal Hamilton about the project.
Rachel Segal Hamilton: What was the origin of this project?
Dr Kimberly Keith: The project began in response to a Heritage Lottery Fund call for proposals in its Collecting Cultures funding stream. Staff from the V&A and BCA and a BCA Trustee volunteer (me) comprised the project team. Together we developed an action plan that included a national call-out for photographs that were created between approximately 1950 and 1999, and depicted an aspect of black British experience. We met with photographers and reviewed images, had extensive dialogue about what to acquire, and eventually purchased 118 individual photographs by 17 different photographers.
RSH: Beyond representing black British experience, what were your selection criteria?
KK: The collection spans 50 years, so it was important to gather material across that entire period. We wanted the photographs to be of archival quality. We wanted a range of documentary and staged photographs, black and white and colour photographs. It was not the intention to create a ‘definitive’ collection of photographs from this period, rather to acquire a range of images that told a story that could be used as a platform to teach about black British history through material culture.
RSH: There must have been many photographers you knew already. But were there also new discoveries? What struck you about them?
KK: Most of the photographers that we worked with were established professionals, so many of us on the team were familiar with them, but not all of us knew all of them. Maxine Walker and Pogus Caesar, Normski and Colin Jones were all new to me. We found out about Maxine and Colin through our relationship with Renee Mussai and Mark Sealy at Autograph ABP.
Maxine’s self portraits are arresting and make me think about identity and belonging, self-acceptance, and a whole range of social and political considerations that most black women encounter on a daily basis. I hope her photographs will spark similar questions for viewers.
Colin’s photographs of the Black House are interesting in their portrayal of black youth culture by a white photographer in the 1970s – at the time he got a bit of backlash for it, but now it is seen as seminal work, so it is interesting to think of the photographs in terms of their temporal context. How we see them today is very different to how they were viewed 40 years ago.
RSH: Stuart Hall described identity as “a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as ‘being’”. How does this apply to work by Yinka Shonibare, Ingrid Pollard and Maxine Walker?
KK: I understand Hall’s idea to mean that when we consider that identity is fluid and not fixed, the temporal context has a bearing on our understanding. In the US we were colored, then black, then African American – the social and political landscape we were in changed over time, as did our ability to identify our position within it. So that ‘becoming’ connotes a move from the margins to the core or the mainstream of society, at least I think that’s one way of considering it.
Ingrid Pollard’s Self Evident series challenges stereotype by placing black subjects in British rural landscapes. Black subjects are typically thought of as inhabiting urban landscapes, and Pollard’s images confront this preconception and allow the black subject to become British.
Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy also challenges preconceptions of where the black subject belongs, albeit through the use of irony. The black dandy is the opposite of what is expected, which causes amusement – but it’s not really amusing when we think about the position of black people in the Victorian age and in contemporary times; the work is a sharp critique of the disparity between the white majority – particularly the aristocracy – and the black minority. Is this work about ‘becoming’ as much as it is about challenging? Yes and no.
And Maxine Walker’s self portraits speak directly to Hall’s idea of identity being both ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ because she literally becomes or transforms herself – by changing her hair colour and texture, her clothing, her demeanour, her gaze – and portrays different personalities or identities in each pair of photographs.
RSH: Autograph ABP is part-way through The Missing Chapter, a project uncovering archives of very early black photography. The recent film, Through a Lens Darkly, drew on the work of Deborah Willis in highlighting the history of black photography in the US. Is a cultural shift happening?
KK: Autograph ABP began as a collective and operated as management for photographers and over the past few years it has expanded the type of work that it does to include projects like The Missing Chapter. It may have had the interest but not the resources to do so 30 years ago. Deborah Willis wrote her book after years of practice as a photographer and years in academia, at a time when she had the resources to do so. Same with the Staying Power project.
I think there’s been an interest in black photography and a steady production of high quality work over the past 50 years or more. But the means to acquire, collect, and promote the material has been scarce up until the past 15 or so years. Now we have the convergence of interest – from curators, as well as audiences – and funding, so there are many black photography projects popping up on the arts and culture landscape. I guess that could look like a cultural shift.
Interview by Rachel Segal Hamilton