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The Comedy of Errors

Don’t Blame the Blacks Exhibition Highlights Extraordinary Activism of Oswald George Powe

15 July 21 words: Alex Stubbs
photos: Phil Formby

Available at Nottingham Castle until Sunday 22 August, Don’t Blame the Blacks is an exhibition that highlights the groundbreaking activism of labour unionist Oswald George Powe and showcases the boundless talents of black artists in Nottingham. Alex Stubbs reviews this one-of-a-kind collection…

On 22 June 1948, HMT Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury, a small industrial town that sits on the banks of the River Thames in Essex. Aboard the ship were workers from across the Caribbean, arriving to fill post-war labour shortages in the UK. 73 years on, carrying the scars of generations of segregation and racism and a history rich with social and political activism, the British public is finally beginning to realise the importance of the Windrush Generation.

As Nottingham Castle reopens its gates to the public after three long years of closure, it is home to a significant exhibition. Curated by Nottingham Black Archive founder Panya Banjoko, Don’t Blame the Blacks explores the history of Nottingham’s black communities since the 1950s. The title of the exhibition comes from a seminal text written by Oswald George Powe, a labour unionist, activist, and politician whose life and work is the focus of the collection. Using archival material to build a rich picture of the activist streak in Nottingham’s black communities, the exhibition sheds light on the importance of Powe and his fight against racial discrimination at Raleigh Industries. 

 

Curator Panya Banjoko is sending a signal to the city’s cultural institutions; no longer will black and brown faces be kept hidden, nor will the voices of the artists who capture them

It’s a small exhibition. A display case filled with newspaper clippings, letters written by Powe, and other artefacts taken from the Nottingham Black Archive sits in the middle of the room. A film installation from British artist Keith Piper and photography from Vanley Burke are the only other works to be found. The journey we take, however, is an intimate one. As we explore the history of Powe and the black workers who fought alongside him against the once deeply systemic racism at Raleigh, the works appear larger than they first did; they shout louder, and the faces sitting patiently on the wall seem imbued with a richer sense of history. 

So while the space may be small, the significance of what’s on display makes it feel much bigger than it is. Vanley Burke is no stranger to documenting the lives of black people in the UK - he’s been doing it his whole life. For this exhibition, though, Burke’s work takes on a slower pace. That’s not to say it’s any less impactful; it seems more measured and calculated than his other works, which are often wrapped up in the powerful spontaneity of documentary photography. Here we see Burke’s portraits of the black men and women who worked at Raleigh in the fifties and sixties. They’re Nottingham locals, people who are deeply tied to the history of black activism not only because they participated in it but because their lives were inherently affected by it. Not only are Burke’s photographs poignant reminders of real people - of real lives - they are also aesthetically beautiful artwork that hold within them a powerful sense of resilience. 

Don’t Blame the Blacks, while strong on its own, is also part of a wider exhibition that stretches along the walls of the main gallery. Amidst works from the Castle’s collection, which includes iconic British artists L S Lowry and Ivon Hitchens, Italian-Ghanaian photographer Sarah Mensah fills the spaces in between with pieces from her Nottingham’s In Your Face project - a selection of her portraits of local residents. It’s a celebration of the diversity of the city, but also of the young artistic talent emerging out of Nottingham. By placing Mensah’s work firmly within the gallery collection, curator Panya Banjoko is sending a signal to the city’s cultural institutions; no longer will black and brown faces be kept hidden, nor will the voices of the artists who capture them.

It's a strong and important message, and one that is reinforced by the inclusion of work from an established artist like Zanelle Muholi, whose black and white portraits of the South African LGBTQ+ community are displayed in the centre of the gallery. Securing pieces from Muholi, who has recently been the subject of their first UK solo show at Tate Modern, only adds to the excitement surrounding this exhibition. Muholi, themselves a self-identifying visual activist, captures the beauty of South Africa’s queer black communities through atmospheric black and white photographs. Placing their work in this exhibition alongside local artists imbues a sense of global solidarity to the message being conveyed. This isn’t simply about Nottingham’s black art; it’s about black art, full stop.

Located at the heart and soul of Don’t Blame the Blacks is a statement of resilience. This is an exhibition which speaks not only to a past generation of black British people, but across history to black people of today, telling a story of representation - a lack of representation - and of hidden and marginalised lives. There’s hope too. With space finally being made on the walls of the Castle gallery for black and brown faces, inclusion and representation aren’t merely buzzwords; they’re tangible actions, even if they are 73 years too late.

Don’t Blame the Blacks is open at Nottingham Castle until Sunday 22 August

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