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Friday, 9 November 2018

Black Art, Black Hollywood, Bristol University and Doing the Right Thing



Whoever Heard of a Black Artist, Britain's Hidden History was a wonderful BBC documentary that looked at the artists, themes and ideas that emerged from the 1960s on about what it meant to be a black artist in Britain.

It looked in particular the Black British Arts Movement, a group that started up to counteract the marginalisation of black artists and to present new ideas on what art was in 1980s Britain (and here's an interesting read on why that time really mattered). Black Art was about marginalisation and the patronising tone of the establishment but it was primarily about great art and the energy and ingenuity that went into making it.

The 1980s was a time which had a huge before and after in photography, a time where the subcultural influences of the 1960s and 1970s were exploding into political and artistic directions with photographers like Vanley Burke, Ingrid Pollard, Clem Cooper, Pogus Caesar, Colin Jones, Dennis Morris, Neil Kenlock and many more creating a politically charged record of the time that extends into landscape, art and fashion. But the programme didn't really touch on that, it was far more conceptual than that. But as some of this work is possibly the most politically relevant and interesting of all the 1970s/1980s documentary work (which currently has such high profile here in the UK) to be made, I'm sure we'll be seeing more of it soon, but then again, I'm not holding my breath.

That's art then. Then there was film. It was really enlightening and entertaining to watch Simon Frederick's Black Hollywood: "You've gotta have us" on TV. It's a series in which Frederick (who also has Black is the New Black, photographs of successful Black Britons on show at the NPG) interviews a whole slew of successful actors, directors, writers and producers from Harry Belafonte to Boots Riley on the barriers, borders, excuses and lies put up to prevent black people making or appearing in films. It's about racism in the film industry then, but actually first and foremost it's about all these amazing films that have been made and the brilliant ways that people talk about them - and the ways that people tried to stop those films being made - the excuses ranged from "People aren't interested in that sort of thing" to responses like "A Black Henry V, whoever heard of such a thing!" which would be fine if movies were about any kind of accuracy, historical or otherwise. "A rabbit that talks, whoever heard of such a thing, A car that goes back in time, whoever heard of such a thing. " You could go on and on.

It gave me the excuse to watch some movies for the first time - films like Carmen Jones. a movie with an all African-American cast filmed in 12 days by producer/director Otto Preminger, and then watch  films again like Do the Right Thing.

One thing I'd forgotten about Spike Lee's film is how considered it is, how thoughtful and considered it is. Also notable is the use of a still photograph in the film. Running like a thread through Do the Right Thing is  the symbolic power of the photograph as the character Smiley tries to sell to whoever will buy them his hand-coloured pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

One person who will not buy them is Sal, owner of the local pizza parlour, a restaurant which has a wall decorated with stars of Italian background; Sophia Loren, Sylvester Stallone, Robert de Niro etc etc, they're all there.

And so the film goes on, with every character flawed, imperfect but thoroughly human in some way, every character filled with a spike of life that rubs up against other spikes, until Radio Raheem (another flawed character who plays Fight the Power and nothing else at full volume on his boombox) gets killed by the police. That was then, it could be now.

And then all hell breaks loose, and violence against the person is responded to by violence against property and the demons of the past are let loose on Sal's pizzeria. History isn't static in Do the Right Thing. It's embedded in the present, its traces live on, its traumas evident as the older you get the more injustice you have witnessed, the more it needs catharsis, the more time folds in on itself as repressed anger explodes into the destruction of Sal's pizzeria. It's not a like for like response, it's not an eye-for-an-eye, it's impotent at heart, another expression of rage, but if that's what you've got, that's what you've got.

But then there's Smiley's picture of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and ultimately that picture does get shown, it does get put up on the wall. Because pictures matter, they contain within them repressed histories, memories, injustices. They can have beauty, they can have violence, they can have depth. They can be like the character Mother-Sister who is all dignity and grace, until Raheem is killed and the depths of pain, memory and unexpressed anger explode into agonised screams of "Burn it Down, Burn it Down".

Pictures are like that. What you show, what you see, what you acknowledge is what matters. It mattered then and it matters now. And acknowledgement isn't much to ask.



I watched Do the Right Thing one day, the next day I saw this tweet on the new staff lounge at the Royal Fort Gardens at the University of Bristol. It features a painting of the Tyndalls Family, a family which had major slave-trading connections, and the Royal Fort was built with profits from the slave and allied trades. In other words they are a family who made their money and built their reputation on the back of kidnapping, imprisonment, rape, torture, and general brutality, all of which somehow evaporated over the distance of the Atlantic Ocean - and time.

It's part of Britain's amnesia and  the historical gaps that you find all the time when you wander around places like Bristol and Bath in particular, where the classical architecture is a constructed facade behind which all kinds of horrors lie. Again, they're a bit like Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing. There is the beauty, but behind it there are beatings, rapes, whipping and lynching. The difference is Mother Sister is on one side of that, the Royal Fort and the Tyndalls Family on the other.

And again, what you show and how you show it matters especially in a city like Bristol. And what you don't show and what you don't say. Sometimes that matters even more.






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