Staying Power: Photography of Black British Experience 1950s – 1990s

The V&A has recently opened a new exhibition in collaboration with Black Cultural Archives to document the experiences of black Britons over the last 50 years as well as to showcase some of the talented photographers involved. Half of the photographs are displayed at the V&A while the rest are in Brixton, where the Black Cultural Archives, are based and the exhibition is strengthened by this split as there is less pressure to rush past each photograph in order to see everything. I returned to my favourites several times, one of which (right) was by J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere and was part of a selection of traditional Nigerian headties accompanied by different braided hairstyles. The headties were each so carefully structured and almost architectural when photographed in black and white and it was clear that a great deal of thought was involved, as with the intricate hairstyles as well.

Other images focused on the daily lives of black Britons and ranged from impromptu snapshots of beauty pageants to styled scenes. However, I was touched by the series of portraits of people formally posing in their home – these were sent back to relatives abroad to demonstrate how well settled and prosperous the sitter was. One man carefully leans on a TV in his best suit whilst another has a child playing with a telephone. Throughout the exhibition the people looking out of the photographs are ambitious and proud of who they are, despite any hostile or deprived surroundings, and I look forward to learning more about this heritage when I get a chance to visit the exhibition in Brixton.

The V&A exhibition is only short (and free!) and there is plenty of time to visit it as it is open until May 24th. The exhibition in Brixton is open for longer and can be seen until June 30th and I will hopefully write about this soon!

William Blake: Apprentice and Master

I had assumed I knew the basic facts about William Blake’s life – that he was an experimental poet who also hand published his own work during the eighteenth century – but once I was through the doors of the Ashmolean’s most recent exhibition I quickly realised how little I actually knew. The exhibition focuses on Blake’s career as an engraver and how these skills allowed him to create such unusually presented poems. Blake was apprenticed to an engraver because the profession was thought to be more profitable than painting and also ensure a steadier income as there was always such a high demand for engravings from a range of sources. However, Blake did not remain rich as he could not always submit to the requests of his clients. He would rather terminate a commission than change something against his will. Since he was taught at home and then apprenticed to an engraver in his teens he was rarely constrained by the strictures of accepted thought or beliefs. He was often thought to be blunt and charmless as he refused to bend to social niceties or manners, instead holding the truth to be the most important goal. Nevertheless, despite these apparent difficulties in character, Blake could inspire deep devotion – his marriage to Catherine Boucher lasted for 45 years and was by all accounts a happy one and as Blake grew older his followers treated him with great reverence.

Engraving was intricate work and pieces could take months, or even years, to complete. An image would first be planned through several sketches, which would perhaps be shown to a patron, before a final design was decided. Then a sheet of metal would be prepared and the difficulty of this stage would depend on the size of the intended engraving. While Blake was still an apprentice he helped with an engraving of the Field of Gold that was the largest ever. The sheet of metal had to be specially made as it was over a metre long and is on show at the exhibition. It was amazing how gleaming the metal was and I could hardly imagine it was just a tool to create the engraving that was framed above it as it felt like a finished piece of art itself. Blake later took two years to complete the engraving of a scene from The Beggar’s Opera (above) and could buy himself a house with the fee. The scene is incredibly detailed and it is hard to imagine that this is all done through careful cross-hatching and shading. Throughout the work Blake would make prints of the work to check how certain aspects were progressing. The exhibition has one of these on show and it was fascinating to observe how the tableau developed – over half the work is near completion but the two women are merely blank outlines.

Throughout his early career as an engraver Blake had always written poetry and painted but it was only following the death of his brother, Robert, that he really began to experiment with how he could present his work to the world. Following a vision of his dead brother Blake discovered that he could adapt the tools he already had to produce colourful editions of his poems. At first the technique had unreliable results but this spurred Blake on to continue experimenting until each print would be as he envisioned it. The first prints were created by directly applying colour to an engraving and resulted in an ethereal washed out effect as the ink quickly ran out. The exhibition documents how Blake gradually learnt mirror writing as his poems became unique in both subject and presentation since he could now incorporate words and images into one print, something which had not been done before. In particular, I found his print of the myth of Laocoön (right) unbelievably modern as it created an almost scrapbook effect with the central image surrounded by a mixture of phrases in different languages. It did not fit with the style that I have always associated with Blake, of dramatic angels and blazing fires, but it epitomized his efforts to mix images and words in an unexpected manner to frustrate an easy viewing.

The exhibition ends with an exploration of how Blake’s followers adapted his methods and themes to continue his legacy but I felt that none appears as innovative or daring as their inspiration. The exhibition continues until March 1st so there is still just enough time to visit.

Women Fashion Power: Not a Multiple Choice

The title of the Design Museum’s current exhibition, Women Fashion Power: Not a Multiple Choice, immediately caught my eye and I was interested to see how they might explore the concepts when I started noticing their posters around London. An exhibition which promises to show the wardrobes of both Margaret Thatcher and Lady Gaga is bound to intrigue. The Design Museum itself is worth a visit as it is a striking white building set on the edge of the Thames near Tower Bridge. However, there are plans for the museum to move from it’s current home to another in South Kensington to enable a permanent, free collection to be showcased. Inside the Shad Thames building everything is carefully chosen and stylishly Spartan. My favourite part of the building was a swirl of handing lights which descended in the middle of the stair case to be reflected by a mirror at the base. This emphasised the unusual light bulbs which featured and were also part of an installation elsewhere.

Unfortunately while I enjoyed visiting the museum itself I was less impressed with the exhibition I had come to see. I had expected an examination of how particular women had either used fashion to demonstrate their power or how fashion had bolstered claims to strength and power. Instead the exhibition started with brief allusions to tired examples of powerful women across history, such as Boadicea, Elizabeth I and Hillary Clinton before chronologically presenting the development of female fashion with basic explanations. Corsets were followed by flappers, the New Look and shoulder pads and I struggled to see how this illustrated women empowered by fashion. The lives of women continued to appear to be restricted by their clothes as stays, tights and heels all dictated the limits of how they could act. I was also frustrated by the layout of the exhibition as the panels were close together, channelling people and quickly creating bottlenecks of necks craning to see an item or some information. Therefore it was easier to go round the exhibition out of order, choosing to dart between decades as empty spaces appeared.

The exhibition really came alive towards the end when it featured the clothes of modern successful and professional women. They ranged from Zaha Hadid to Camila Batmanghelidjh and also Lady Gaga. I was immediately engaged by how each woman uses fashion in her professional life, reflecting both her personality but also the practicalities of the job. While some featured Zara dresses or their everyday suits others chose the Chanel handbags they bought to celebrate achievements or custom made jackets. Hadid’s jacket appeared as structurally sound and fascinating as any of her buildings while Batmanghelidjh’s dress sewed together fabric she received from the children she helps and works with and she often rearranges the selection as time passes. The variety of this display proved that fashion can branch out in a myriad of directions and a single narrative cannot hope to capture this.

Without a doubt my favourite dress in the exhibition was Lady Gaga’s dress made out of bin bags. The material was so carefully cut, shaped and styled that it was difficult to believe that it is also commonly disposed of throughout households in the land. The dress cascaded and fluttered, even as it was worn by a motionless mannequin so I can only imagine the effect it would have when worn by a living, breathing Lady Gaga. I have to admit that while I loved the dress I am unlikely to attempt to recreate it myself as I can imagine that it can become rather too warm to wear. Nevertheless, this reassessment of what can constitute fashion was a wonderful way to end the exhibition.

The exhibition continues until the 26th of April.

The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollingshurst

The Line of Beauty is not a book that I would normally pick up in a bookshop – I didn’t know a huge amount about it and my only previous experience of Alan Hollingshurst’s writing (The Stranger’s Child) had not encouraged me to read more. I am therefore very grateful that I trusted the judgement of the Man Booker prize and spontaneously bought a cheap copy. As soon as I had read the first page I knew this was a book which I would be completely absorbed in and continue to think about long after finishing. It is the story of a young, openly gay man in 1980s London who is exploring the possibilities that life currently offers him. Throughout the book Nick Guest, the shy and naive protagonist develops into a mature, worldly-wise adult but he still continues to question and observe in a wistful manner which originally made him endearing. The book opens in the summer that Nick graduates from Oxford and chronicles his time as a lodger with the family of his wealthy friend, Toby Fedden. As he occupies this ill-defined position of both guest and tenant the intricate snobberies of the society he has entered become apparent. Nick joins dinner parties to ‘make up the numbers’ but is privy to all the Feddens’ secret. His sexuality is politely not discussed unless completely necessary but he still remains divorced from those around him as he obviously does not conform to the heterosexual norm of the many weddings he attends.

The book is split into several parts which span the majority of Nick’s twenties and it is striking how each section includes a different cast of characters as people move through his life. As Nick embarks on his first relationship, unsure of who to tell, whether to introduce Leo as his boyfriend or even whether he should introduce him to his other friends I experienced every concern and hope. However, at the start of the second part, several years later, this lack of confidence was gone and replaced by a totally new attitude to relationships. Nick now leads a glamorous lifestyle, fuelled by coke and an insatiable desire for new and luxurious things. The ‘line of beauty’ begins to take on several meanings as his aesthete’s habits focus both on the clear, swirling ironwork of a bed and the white power ordered by a credit card. Inevitably the weight of the AIDs epidemic begins to make itself felt across the pages as 1980s gay London is stricken and Nick is painfully reminded of mortality as lovers and acquaintances quietly grow gaunt. I felt this section was particularly poignant as characters which have long been forgotten or avoided by Nick return and force him to assess his life, both emotionally and philosophically. Just as The Great Gatsby‘s Nick Carraway is unable to relax, throughout The Line of Beauty Nick Guest compares himself to his hosts, friends and acquaintances to his detriment. Lasting attachments appeared to escape Nick throughout the book because he was unable to wholeheartedly trust those who befriended him or did not believe he deserved the love he received. His status as an outsider pervades even his closest relationships.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Line of Beauty as not only does it present a heart wrenching portrait of the reality of being openly gay only two decades after homosexuality had been legalised but it also carefully dissects privileged 1980s British society. I could imagine the power suits and the arrogance which each character wears just as clearly as I felt Nick’s disappointments or expectations. This experience has motivated me to reassess my judgements on other authors who I have dismissed after reading only one of their books. The next author to re-evaluate is Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea is one of the least enjoyable or interesting books I have ever read!