Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s – 1990s

Bettina Trabant reviews Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s – 1990s, currently on at the V&A, South Kensington and the Black Cultural Archive, Brixton.


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

Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s – 1990s forms part of a Heritage Lottery funded project that aims to raise awareness of the contribution of black people to British culture and society as well as to the art of photography.

For the last seven years the V&A has actively collected 118 photographs by 17 artists to increase the number of photographs by and of black Britons in their collection.

Complementing the V&A’s art works, the Black Cultural Archive in Brixton has conducted oral history interviews with the artists and sitters in the photos.

The photographs in the Staying Power exhibition show a diverse range of photo techniques and topics relating to black British culture and experiences from the 1950s to the 1990s. Subjects include hairstyles and décor of British Caribbean homes and consist of both self-portraits and reportage.

The artists in the exhibitions are both male and female and represent different age groups. They engage with themes of identity, representation, community and style.

The first photo in the exhibition was taken by Norman ‘Normanski’ Anderson who was born in 1969 to African Caribbean parents and raised in North West London. He started taking photos as a kid and at the age of 19 worked as a professional photographer portraying the hip-hop music scenes of the 1980s for magazines such as The Face and Vogue.

Maxine Walker, another photographer, deals with the subject of racist stereotype as she takes snaps of herself in a variety of guises. In the photos she shows herself in different skin tones and hairstyles as if they were instantaneous transformations from a photo booth.

Other photographers include Dennis Morris who had his first image published in the Daily Mirror at the age of 11 and Armet Francis who in 1964 took a self-portrait in the mirror as part of the ‘black is beautiful movement’

Although the exhibition is small and tucked away in a hard to find side room of the V&A, it is well worth going to as it forms an important contribution to the culture of black people in Britain. It is great to see a national museum engage with topics of this nature. Anyone interested in black culture, photography and anti-racism will find plenty to discover and will be impressed by the wide variety of different photos from across the whole of the post war period.

It slightly disappointing however to only see half the content, with the other half being in the Black Cultural Archive in Brixton. I believe the exhibition would benefit from being in one place as seeing only one part leaves you slightly dissatisfied and craving for more.


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