The Black Cultural Archives: An Independent Intervention

First published on the Frieze Blog in August 2014 this essay considers the historic context and contemporary importance of the BCA

The new Black Cultural Archives building, Windrush Square, Brixton, London. Courtesy Mark Longair

Three thousand people gathered in Windrush Square, Brixton, to celebrate the opening of the Black Cultural Archives’ (BCA) bespoke new building. As I stood among them, listening to the voice of Linton Kwesi Johnson, I was moved beyond words. Yet, the only way to really understand the gravity of that moment in July 2014 is to consider the time, in the not so distant past, when the archive was first established.

London in 1981 cuts a somewhat different shape to the relative cohesion of today’s late-multiculturalist society: the founding of the Black Cultural Archives took place after a succession of events set London’s young black communities in opposition to the Metropolitan Police Service, erupting into the Brixton uprisings of April 10–11. Thatcherism, the pinnacle of National Front support at local elections, overt racism and large-scale unemployment all weighed down on Britain’s young black people. Many of them were born in Britain – the sons and daughters of the ‘Windrush generation’ so called after the arrival of the Empire Windrush ship, that carried the first group of migrant workers from Kingston, Jamaica, docking in Tilbury, Essex in 1948. Encouraged to come to Britain to replenish the work force after the Second World War, many of these early migrants settled in Brixton and other parts of London.  A generation later, overwhelmingly negative representations or complete omissions of the black experience in the media and other national institutions fuelled deep-set feelings of exclusion, disfranchisement and alienation as a generation of young people fought to set their own terms for what it might mean to be both black and British. Out of this moment came the urgent need for black communities in Brixton, London and across the country to take the narration of their history into their own hands. And the first wave of ephemera, photographs, documents and the occasional object, were the items placed in the care of the BCA because people within the community judged them to be of importance to a communal history and shared a concern for posterity.

Around this time, at the margins of Britain’s art scene, from Wolverhampton to London, a group of radical young artists – including Sonya Boyce, Eddie Chambers, Lubaina Himid and Keith Piper – was forming and asserting it’s presence as the nascent British Black Art Movement. It is worth remembering that landmark exhibitions such as The Other Story held at the Hayward Gallery in 1989 in which curator Rashid Araeen brought together the united kingdom’s first retrospective of African, Caribbean and Asian art does not come to fruition until the end of the decade. Similarly Magicians de la Terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou and La Villette, Paris, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin also1989, which was to irreversibly shake up the story of a hegemonic Western art history did not to occur until the tail end of the 1980s; the turn towards diverse and inclusive programming within mainstream cultural organisations was still a way off.

From these beginnings, the Black Cultural Archives have transitioned from a grass-roots initiative into a forward looking organisation that is both archive and heritage centre. Housing a collection of 7,000 books and 31 cubic meters of archive material spanning five centuries, a reading room, exhibition space and the obligatory cafe and gift shop, the BCA’s new premises have taken pride of place on the corner of Windrush Square. Inaugurating the exhibition space is ‘Re-Imagine: Black Women in Britain’, which sets out to give us ‘a glimpse of some of these women, the traces of their lives lying in the vaults of national archives, libraries and museums of across the United Kingdom’; a sentence from the accompanying exhibition booklet that sets the agenda for the centre itself as a space for and means of navigating the various narratives of the archive. The exhibition space is partitioned and filled with vitrines and large-scale photographic reproductions. The first work you come across is an excerpt from John Akomfrah’s film Peripeteia (2012), projected beside a drawing entitled The Negress, Katharina (1521) by German painter and print maker Albrecht Dürer. Akomfrah’s piece offers a poetic imagining of a wondering young woman reminiscent of Dürer’s sitter, lost to the wild countryside whilst the sky glooms between dusk or dawn and the sound of wind whips steadily. The full length piece takes as its starting point two portraits made by Dürer in the 16th century – a man and a woman with compassionately rendered, distinctly Negro features which offer an early depiction of African experience in Europe. The exhibition portrays a selection of women – among them Doreen Lawrence, Florence Mills, Olive Morris and Mary Seacole – with significant stories often spanning many locations – from Africa, the Caribbean, the U.S and the U.K. The audio guide and wall texts tackle a complex and charged history from the perspective of the women who lived it. For audiences seeking to understand the important contributions that black women have made to the cultural, political and social fabric of Britain, the exhibition is enriching and informative. Yet, whilst the abundance of reproduction photographs did well the illustrate the point in hand, the art work of John Akomfrah certainly elevated the debate to a more nuanced aesthetic and made for the most rewarding encounter.

The next exhibition Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s–1990s is the culmination of, a partnership between the BCA and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), and is curated by BCA Trustee Kimberly Keith. The project, began in 2007 with the aim to increase representations of the black experience within the V&A collection and has led to the acquistion of fine art photographic prints by 17 artists of African and Caribbean descent, amounting to 135 individual images. The project ‘Staying Power’ demonstrates the way in which the BCA archive and its representatives have been able to intervene within mainstream museum processes to form counter narratives and expand the canon. A selection of these new acquisitions will form part of the next exhibition that will take place at both the V&A and the BCA in Spring 2015 and include works by Charlie Philips, Ingrid Pollard, Yinka Shonibare and Maxine Walker amongst many others. Keith explains that ‘a lot of the material chosen for the exhibition at BCA deals with social history, community, identity’ – topics that resonate throughout the BCA’s archival holdings.

The opening of the BCA as both archive and exhibition space has the potential to promote and engage a new generation of artists who are once again re-negotiating what it means to be black and British. I put this point to Keith, who in response had this to say:

BCA is about partnerships, collaboration, remaining relevant to the community, if that is teaching about how history and the archive can inform arts practice, how arts practice and product can inform history and culture, I believe those are central to what we are doing. It’s a great big experiment, and I am looking forward to watching it unfold.


Conversation with Kimberly Keith, Trustee, Black Cultural Archives, 8 August 2014.

Title borrowed from ‘Independant Intavenshan: The Island Anthology’ by Linton Kwesi Johnson, 1998