Monday, 24 August 2015

Personal Insight from Curator Michael McMillan

Personal Insight: Dr Michael McMillan reflects on his role in curating the Walter Rodney Bookshop, a key facet of the exhibition. McMillan is a writer, playwright, fine artist and curator of Caribbean heritage and his work often explores migrant narratives and identity. Previous installations such as The West Indian Front Room (2005 – 06), The Living Room of Migrants in the Netherlands (2007 – 2008) and A Living Room Surrounded by Salt (2008) consider the domestic manifestations of race, aesthetic and identity within a physical environment, reanimating the artefacts and experiences housed within them. 

As a second generation Caribbean migrant descendent, born and educated in the UK. I, like many of my peers, was searching for an identity in the culturally and politically charged environment of British society and the African diaspora. We were here to stay and many, including myself, would eventually affirm being Black British, amongst other identities. Personally, part of this journey was searching out spaces where black arts and culture (theatre, literature, music, dance, poetry, and film) were being creatively expressed. Amongst the places that I often visited were bookshops in London such as New Beacon, Grassroots, Headstart, Soma, Centerprise, Sabarr and the Walter Rodney Bookshop. It was a space where I lost myself discovering books that reflected my experience in the diaspora and where I met others of a similar mind-set and spirit. I also remember Jessica and Eric Huntley as committed stalwarts of the cultural revolution taking place at that moment. Therefore, when Colin Prescod and Margaret Andrews approached me from FHALMA to recreate the Walter Rodney Bookshop installation, I relished the opportunity to revisit a seminal moment in my life.

An intensive research process soon began. I immersed myself in the Huntley Archive at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), meticulously collected by Jessica and Eric themselves. The experience has been one of discovery, rediscovery and revelation. This informed the construction of a narrative, which will be communicated through the interactive and multi-media material culture of the Walter Rodney Bookshop. This has also affirmed the intrinsic importance of the archive in black diasporic histories, whose cultural and political experience has often been misrepresented.

 Having curated The West Indian Front Room (Geffrye Museum 2005-06), I am interested in the aesthetics of the black diasporic domestic interior and popular culture of the 1970s. Like all good things, Bogle L’Ouverture Publications and the Bookshop began in Jessica and Eric Huntley’s front room. Though they eventually moved into commercial premises, the sense of home pervaded where writers, audiences, readers and the community engaged in a creative yet informal atmosphere. This was radical, this was revolutionary and this still has resonance today. Creativity is about responding to limitations and it has been a pleasure for me to consider, design, source materials and dress the installation.

 Curating, like all creative practices, is collaborative and the process has been a team effort with FHALMA as commissioners, LMA providing source materials and the Guildhall Art Gallery housing No Colour Bar exhibition of which the installation is key element. As a free-lance practitioner, it is often a challenging working within different organisational cultures and operational structures, but it is as a learning experience, collaborating and working with practitioners from diverse specialisms. 

One of my aspirations as curator is that visitors engage with the Huntley Archive, not as a collection of inanimate things, but a living force mediated by the spirit of Jessica and Eric Huntley. I hope that through their experience, visitors go home and look again at their collections of photographs, letters and documents in suitcases, boxes, lofts, and cupboards. They should also be curious and quiz their elders and begin to value them as living archives as part of the rich tapestry of the black British and diasporic experience.
© Michael McMillan – June 2015

Friday, 14 August 2015

Asquith Xavier and the Euston Colour Bar

Reanimating History: Jean Joseph, a visual artist and art facilitator, looks back to the Euston Colour Bar and the first Black guard, Asquith Xavier, who helped overcome it. 

Passengers, using the plethora of rail services that traverse London on a daily basis, naturally take one thing for granted. That is, the members of rail staff they encounter, drawn from a wide demography of the multicultural landscape. Further, those commuting to and from Euston Station are unlikely to know, or remember, a landmark victory won in 1966.

The 16th of July this year will mark 49 years of a cause célèbre and momentous uplifting - though not of the World Cup and the roar of a full capacity crowd at the old Wembley Stadium - that still resonates today. It was of another victory, won by Asquith Xavier, a Dominican passenger guard and accidental hero campaigner who help topple a colour bar at Euston Station.

He was a close friend, compatriot and work colleague of my father, Charles Joseph. My brother, as a young boy, recalls that he first met Asquith Xavier in 1963 when he accompanied our father to Southampton Dock. My father had come to meet his family after a fraught journey from Dominica. I had remained with my paternal grandmother - following the family a few years later. We remember Mr Xavier, as we addressed him, as a warm and kindly man.

Both men were part of the Caribbean community living in the Notting Hill area, settling in the 1950s after responding to the call for employment opportunities. They were of a similar mindset; they had many shared interests and a sense of injustice in terms of resisting racial discrimination in its many forms, including the deprivations of extremely poor housing and unfairness in the workplace. Neither had the stomach for another battle, yet they would not accept this injustice, although my father was pre-occupied with concurrent issues.

Asquith wished to transfer from Marylebone where he started work over a decade before as a porter, to a better-paid job at Euston Station. His National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) representative, James Prendergast, (a name I remember from my father) liaised with British Rail. Trade union membership did not necessarily guarantee genuine representation however, as, they too were prone to discriminatory practices. It was the Staff Committee, members of the NUR themselves, who wrote to deny him the job, and it was under the auspices of British Rail that this practice took place. This ignited the campaign to bring an end to an exclusion that is said to have persisted for at least 12 years. Black and Asian workers were widely subjected to racist abuse and a wall of resistance in the workplace on a daily basis with impunity, exacerbated by a further insult to ‘remove the chip from their shoulders’ if they dared to protest. The Race Relations Board and other watchdog bodies received a regular flow of complaints. However the outcomes were more often than not unsuccessful at investigation, due to the intense subterfuge in the workplace.

The official end came on July 15th and the bar was subsequently lifted from all of British Rail stations. This represented a major shift in industrial and race relations and led to positive implications for Black and Asian workers. A British Rail, manager Leslie Leppington declared that one [a bar] had not actually existed and commented that "If we had wanted to impose a real colour bar we would not have done it this way. We would have found some excuse to show he was not suitable for the job, wouldn't we?" [1]
On the ground, it was ‘business as usual’. Asquith Xavier (and others who followed and supported – including my father) continued to experience the expected retaliation over a period of time. Asquith specifically, because of his unwavering outlook was subjected to a tirade of abuse, requiring protection to and from his place of work.

One prominent supporting organisation, the West Indian Standing Conference, whose secretary at the time was Jeff Crawford, had taken the matter up with British Rail and the government. They were not convinced of the change being implemented across the rail industry. There is an iconic, or even symbolic photograph of Asquith Xavier taken in August 1966 on his first day of work, wearing his regulation issue black, brass-buttoned uniform. He is seen consulting his watch prior to boarding the train - in the background are white passengers and porters’ barrows as though to illustrate his trajectory [2]. I have fond memories of my father wearing the very same uniform setting off to work, carrying his holdall containing his guard’s paraphernalia and a flask. He would travel as far as Scotland on his many journeys.

The campaign was ahead of its time, given that the Race Relations Act was only amended in 1968 and was precursory to arguably further amendments well into the seventies and the present time, such as the setting up of the now defunct Commission for Racial Equality in 1976. It began because one modest yet, determined man from a small Caribbean nation applied to his employer for a transfer to improve his prospects. The rejection was a catalyst to achieving a milestone in addressing racism in the workplace, not only at British Rail, but in the wider industry.

Jean Joseph, June 2016 

 1. BBC On This Day, 15 July 2008.
 2. Credit: Keystone / Stringer
From the archive, 16 July 1966: Colour bar ends at all London stations by Eric Silver Originally published in the Guardian on 16 July 1966 First-class Hero, 15 July 2006, by Ros Wynne-Jones

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Framing Black Visual Arts Event

The title Framing Black Visual Arts suggests that Monday’s forum was going to be as succinct, ordered and definable as its moniker. That, it was not. It was, however, an engaging, multi-faceted discussion attempting to engage with the exhibition and Black British art itself.

A conversion took place between Eddie Chambers and Errol Lloyd, led by artist, writer and curator Sonia Dyer. Eddie Chambers is an art historian, writer, artist whose work features in No Colour Bar, and an associate professor of Art and Art History at the University of Austin. Errol Lloyd is a writer and artist of the Caribbean Artists Movement, also producing illustrations for the Bogle L’Ouverture Publications. Eddie and Errol acted as dynamic creative archives, with Chambers representing the artistic aspect of the exhibition from a later generation, whereas Lloyd showcased his close personal relationship with the Huntley’s and the Caribbean artist movement.

It was fantastic to hear about CAM from a member of the group, with Lloyd expressing that CAM was made up of various creative practitioners who originally did not define themselves through their colour. ‘As time went on, and with the new generation, the question of identity had to be addressed’.

Sonia asked if he was aware that he was creating a culture, Lloyd explained that they were aware nothing like this had been done before, Black publishers with such political foundations. L’Ouverture was partially born out of a desire to raise funds for Walter Rodney when he was excluded from Jamaica in 1968.

Both guests offered a personal link to the tense raced history of Britain, with Chambers noting the strong anti immigrant sentiment expressed by the National Front. Lloyd explained the outreach to American civil right and the South African Apartheid struggles in Britain, which he thinks may have strengthened the pan-african sense. ‘I think some of the reasons for this is through finding a common cause with struggles in world’.

The panel discussed the duality of being Black and British, with Lloyd remembering thinking that the future generation would be British Nationals and thus have a different outlook to migrants like himself.

The forum took time to look back at Ronald Moody, whose desire to work in an african style was unusual but it’s timeless and static nature was something which Moody wished to allude to. Lloyd also expressed his sympathy for Moody, who was not able to work on the epic monumental scale that his work he was inspired by - ‘imagine if he had the resources on the scale of which other artists were better funded, like Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth’.

Chambers noted that Moody’s relative prominence to other Black artists is down to the efforts of his niece who tirelessly worked to conserve his collection but Moody himself was never able to enjoy this success. ‘There is a big problem in retrospectively insinuating an artist into a slot when he has died, the real benefit would be to influence another generation and peers their is lifetime’.

For Chambers, the history of Black artists have had regular peaks and troughs but not a sustained apotheosis  - ‘I long to wander into a gallery, where, in any part of the country, where there is an exhibition [of Black artists] just for the sake of it. Chambers expressed that he saw Black Artists exhibited in an abnormal context, in a raced environment. An audience member argued that there are a large number of exhibiting Black artists who aren’t celebrated merely to tick a box. Lamenting the lack of formalistic considerations of the art, using the talk itself as an example of how context often overshadows the actual art.

A second audience member asked what made race so persistent that it often refuses to disappear regardless of where the artist is located. Chambers echoed these sentiments, that we are born into a world shaped by racial characteristics and experiences – with press responses to artists playing a monumental role in its reception. For Chambers, art critics tend to focus on imagined racial narratives, which are clumsy, heavy handed and blinkered. These responses aren’t reflections of the artists, but the prejudices of the critics and the entire artist institution.

Audience member Gus John, who discovered both Bogle L’Ouverture and New Beacon Books in his early 20s, emphasises that ‘our creativity has never ever been defined circumscribed by racism. Race may have become a context that enables us to use culture in the service of political defiance. When they get racialised in Britain because of its perpetual race narrative… it is suggesting we can’t make any contribution to society unless we are identified by them’.

One audience member asked ‘Why are they being apologetic [about being defined as a Black artist when we attempt to express visually our historical experience. When a British artist goes to America, they are called a British artist’. Eddie pointed out that the label ‘British’ is not constraining in a crude or blunt way whereas Black African artist is constraining, if it is the only category your work is located within. Another audience member offered ‘If an artist is working with the right type of curator, the art can be appreciated for the right type of quality’.

As the talk drew to a close, so much hung in what was unsaid and the endless discussion of Black Art that could have taken place whether socio-political, formalistic or racial. What stuck with me was the comment about how by focusing on the context of the artist, their race and heritage, the artwork itself is neglected. This was pertinent, something I agreed with. But I also think the beauty of an art and archival exhibition is that the work is not divorced from its social, cultural and political history. It is not denied, and by embracing the textured history surrounding the art, the tireless efforts of Jessica and Eric, and countless others, is celebrated, remembered and legitimised. This is crucial when Britain’s terse race relations can often be denied or forgotten in the face of more visible historical struggles in the USA and South Africa.  The evening was not long enough, and the conversations continued as audience members left their seats, hopefully inspired, provoked and no doubt desiring to continue these crucial discussions in their own personal environments.