INSIDER’S GUIDE: Staying Power, V&A
Take a look inside the new London photography exhibition at the V&A, Staying Power, with Curator of Photographs Martha Weiss
Armet Francis, ‘Self-Portrait in Mirror’, London, 1964, gelatin silver print, Credit line: © Armet Francis / Victoria and Albert, London
Staying Power: black experience in popular culture
But why now? As Martin Luther King biopic, Selma, lights up the box office (despite the lack of Oscar attention) and black experience is highlighted by the Photographers’ Gallery Human Rights Human Wrongs exhibition, it seems a rare coincidence. ‘I can’t claim that we were trying to tie into any other cultural outputs relating to black experience more generally’, says Weiss, ‘but on the I hope that this exhibition strikes a positive note at a time when we’re continually aware of racial tensions.’ Reflecting on the recent issues in the USA recently, Weiss says, ‘I hope this can make a kind of positive contribution to the dialogue’.
V&A photography exhibition: identity and representation
‘Identity and questions of representation are the overarching theme of this exhibition’, explains Weiss, ‘be it through questions of fashion, style, or setting in a domestic interior or the streets of 1960s Notting Hill’. The arresting first image in the V&A museum is Jamaican photographer Armet Francis’s Self-portrait in Mirror (1964), a curiously intimate and honest image showing Armet setting up his shot directly in front of a mirror.
Maxine Walker’s homage to Cindy Sherman in a series of radical passport or identity photos in a variety of guises is particularly engaging. ‘She’s precisely changing her appearance, but playing around with what we expect and all the political baggage that goes along with that’, says Weiss. Not only a magician with makeup, costumes and wigs, Walker uses the tools of photography to change her appearance with different lighting and printing techniques.
Normski, 'African Homeboy - Brixton, London, 1987', printed 2011, c-type print, Credit line: © Normski / Victoria and Albert, London
But the King of reinvention must be British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare and his transformation into a flamboyant Victorian Dandy: velvet pink waistcoat, guffawing gentlemen and all. ‘Yinka Shonibare is referring to history painting and putting a new twist on that’, Weiss says. Certainly this series can’t help but remind you of the morality tale of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1732-33). And the writhing bodies of Shonibare’s depraved evening scene must reference Eugène Delacroix’s fleshy painting The Death of Sardanapalus (1827).
The carefully constructed studio photograph is also a prevalent theme in this photography exhibition such as James Baynor’s images in Acca, Ghana. ‘Then you have someone like Al Vandenburg (On a Good Day series) who uses the street as his studio where he’s setting people up quite deliberately against the backdrops of shop fronts. Or Neil Kenlock who took photographs in people’s actual homes so they could send those back to their relatives in the Caribbean and show how well they were doing. So they’re kind of performing in their own homes, showing themselves off with their possessions in the way one might perform in a studio portrait.’
Neil Kenlock, ‘Untitled [Young woman seated on the floor at home in front of her television set]', C- type print, London, 1972, Credit line: © Neil Kenlock / Victoria and Albert, London
Look out also for the beauty pageant images of glamorous women with Amazonian long limbs preening themselves ahead of the big contest by Raphael Albert. In keeping with the contemporary ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement in 1960s America, Albert captures these young women in their natural beauty, particularly embracing their Afro hair. You’ll also be transfixed by Charlie Phillips’ images of the Caribbean community in swinging 60s Notting Hill before the yummy mummy invasion.
Staying Power: Black Cultural Archives
Continuing the exploration of black experience in Staying Power, Brixton-based black heritage centre, Black Cultural Archives, forms the second half of this photography show. Working in tandem with the V&A on the project, there are also a number of oral histories in the Staying Power exhibition from both photographers and sitters.
Photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Now part of the permanent collection, these striking prints will take up residence in the recently renovated V&A photography gallery upstairs. And if you miss this free exhibition in London, don’t fear. We are likely to see these striking new images in future V&A photography exhibitions London.