Histories are far from complete and neutral narratives, and what is excluded from them is often as interesting and revealing as the things that remain. Popular histories of multi-cultural Britain often start in the decade after the Second World War, with an influx of people from the commonwealth who came to rebuild the country and take over the jobs left empty by conflict. But British society was ethnically diverse long before this, largely a consequence of empire and it’s involvement in the slave trade, and this diversity is a detail often found in first hand accounts of cities like London written in the nineteenth centuries and even earlier.
Doing something to challenge this absence from the popular narrative is Black Chronicles II, on display now at Rivington Place. The exhibition forms part of Autograph ABP’s The Missing Chapter project, which explores the visual record of the black presence in Britain and return it to public attention. Black Chronicles II focuses on black and Asian people in late Victorian Britain, and comprises two distinct sets of photographs. Downstairs are images made by the London Stereoscopic Company, the majority of them taken of a singing troupe known as The African Choir. Upstairs are an array of original carte de visites and other more everyday photographic artefacts featuring black and Asian subjects.
The African Choir were a sixteen strong group which toured Britain for two years from 1891 and performed for Queen Victoria, amongst others. Photographed by the London Stereoscopic Company, the glass plates ended up in the Hulton Getty archive and have remained there for the best part of a century. Now unearthed and reprinted, they make a powerful impression. As well as a number of group photographs, each member of the choir (comprising men, women, and boys) was photographed twice, front on and in profile. Any initial similarity to an identity photograph or mugshot quickly dissolves on closer inspection. The new prints render each person at almost life size, and the sculptural light and incredible detail of the glass plate have a mesmerising effect, drawing you in to each image as if facing a living person.
I could write at length about the thoughts and feelings I had as I stood in the gallery looking into each of these faces in turn, and feeling very strongly the sense of them looking back at me. It seems better however that if you are able then you go and experience this for yourself. Also on show in the gallery are a number of other photographs from the London Stereoscopic Company, including several striking ones of the boxing champion Peter Jackson, sharply dressed and confident. High on the walls, the gallery space is ringed by quotes from the cultural theorist Stuart Hall who died earlier in the year. Given his role in pushing the once fringe discipline of cultural studies into the academic mainstream, it seems entirely apt to have Hall’s intellectual presence hovering high above the exhibition.
Upstairs in the second gallery space an array of carte de visites are on display which offer a slightly more everyday vision of black and Asian Britons. There are boxers, a priest, even a free mason. On display in vitrines are several original albums of photographs showing the African Choir photographs on display downstairs in the context of what I can only presume other shoots carried out by the London Stereoscopic Company. On one open page, photographs of a member of the choir are followed by images of an incredulous looking monkey, a strange and thought provoking contrast. Projected on the gallery wall are a series of group photographs of British Indian army orderlies. In each case they are arranged around a white officer, and overshadowed by a portrait of the king, a powerful, telling arrangement. Accompanying the projection is a recording of Stuart Hall himself speaking on the complexities of reconciling archives, history and race.
Nearing the end of this review I realise there is still so very much that I’d like to say about this show. Considering the relatively small footprint of the exhibition, Black Chronicles II packs in an array of fascinating material, avoids sweeping claims or generalisations, and delivers an experience which is thought provoking and enlightening. Given Autograph ABP’s prior form with the fantastic Congo Dialogues exhibition which was on show earlier in the year, I’m really looking forward to seeing what they show next.
Black Chronicles II, presented by Autograph ABP at Rivington Place, London, 12 September – 29 November, 2014. Curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy. Produced in collaboration with the Hulton Archive, a division of Getty Images; and other partners. Original research supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.