by Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya

If you’re passing through Brixton Market, exploring the vintage clothing stalls or lamenting the overpriced pints designed to rip off tourists, it’s easy to miss the Brixton Recreation Centre, tucked away and accessible only by a remote entrance. But this abandoned-looking building is in fact one of two homes of a fascinating local photography exhibition. The Lost Legacies of The British Black Panthers provides a vital insight into the anti-racist activism of the Windrush generation which is often overlooked in our understanding of twentieth-century British history. 

A year on from the Windrush scandal, the exhibition by Jamaican-born Panther photographer Neil Kenlock brilliantly captures the strength of resistance in these past generations – it remains inspirational to the current fight against both new and persisting forms of racism. Encountering Brixton’s gentrified, hipster character, it’s easy to forget that the district was once underprivileged and marginalised, consisting largely of some of London’s poorest Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, which are increasingly being pushed out of the area. Kenlock’s photographs invoke Brixton’s historical significance by emphasising the British Black Panthers’ local roots. Much of their organising took place in locations such as Shakespeare Road, just walking distance from the Recreation Centre. Indeed, one of the themes that emerges from the exhibition is the roles many BBP members held as proponents of broader political philosophies. They also acted as educators and campaigners in their local communities, notably by helping children gain access to education and setting up Saturday schools to teach them about Black nationalism and Black history.

The main component of the exhibition at Brixton Recreation Centre is two panels featuring enlarged passport-style photographs of BBP members, taken by Kenlock in the 1960s and ‘70s. The introduction explains that these photos were used on their BBP membership cards, rendering them central representations of their identities within the organisation. By enlarging the photos and presenting them as portraits with accompanying captions describing their work, this part of the exhibition projects each member as an individual activist contributing in a unique way – through teaching, writing, campaigning and community support work – to the BBP movement and the wider fight against racism in Britain.

This unapologetic radicalism of the BBP’s ideologies extended beyond celebrating Black identities to concrete demands for systemic, material improvement to Black people’s lives in the UK, inspired by the revolutionary US Black Panther movement.

The number of women’s portraits featured is instantly noticeable and uplifting to observe. Several captions discuss the importance of fighting patriarchy, including how this intersects with anti-racist campaigning. Among these are Olive Morris, a founding member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group , and her deftly-worded indictment of capitalism, ‘the system that breeds both [racism and sexism]’. This unapologetic radicalism of the BBP’s ideologies extended beyond celebrating Black identities to concrete demands for systemic, material improvement to Black people’s lives in the UK, inspired by the revolutionary US Black Panther movement. However, also integral to the BBP’s practice was the now highly controversial contemporary notion of ‘political Blackness’ , which allowed individuals from various non-white ethnic backgrounds – particularly African and South Asian, as represented by the portraits – to unite against shared experiences of racism. Indeed, Morris was also a co-founder of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). 

The exhibition powerfully conjures a historical period when anti-racist activism was more revolutionary than today, thus facilitating this explicitly political solidarity between different communities, which has undeniably become less visible in recent decades. This is partly due to the increasingly complex make-up of the UK BAME population, and the common view of one’s ethnic identity as individual and personal, rather than broad, widely shared and (partially) politically strategic. Neither view is more correct, or more progressive – they simply illustrate a shift in understanding of racialised identities in an enduringly racist society.

But the exhibition doesn’t portray the BBP solely as political pioneers: there is also a personal slant. In a screen in one corner, viewers can watch repeating clips of some members talking and laughing, displaying a more intimate, humanised view of them than that of the dignified, grave passport portraits. This corner also provides an opportunity to sit and reflect on the information one has just learned from the captions, or simply catch one’s breath.

On the other side of the room is a contrasting set of photographs. Unlike the highly individualised portrait panels, these photos depict scenes of collective BBP altercation with the far right, including Nazi flags being waved in the very streets of Brixton where BBP community organising took place.

The exhibition ultimately serves as a stark reminder of the enduring, and perhaps increasing, importance of revolutionary approaches to anti-racist activism

A short bus ride, or a twenty-minute walk through the organisation’s local area, will take you to the second part of the exhibition at the equally quiet 198 Railton Road. This section embraces the BBP’s collective power more fully. Where Brixton Recreation Centre introduced the organisation’s central figures, their accomplishments and political ideologies, Railton Road directly situates them within the wider context of community activism through visual representations of these accomplishments. One of the first pictures you see is of four children from a BBP-led Saturday school on a Black liberation protest, holding a sign outlining their revolutionary demands, emphasising the link between the BBP’s politics and community initiatives. Kenlock also captures other local BBP projects, such as the Brixton Neighbourhood Advice and Counselling Centre and locally-based protests, most prominently against the imprisonment of Panther ‘Brother Keith’ in the nearby Brixton Prison. 

Three books on display alongside the photographs: Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, pay homage to the BBP’s revolutionary ideology, collectively highlighting the close links between Marxist conceptions of revolution and Black revolutionary politics over the last few centuries. The exhibition states its deliberate focus on resistance rather than oppression, but two photographs of police arresting activists – including one pregnant woman – poignantly evoke similar contemporary images of police violence against Black people. The exhibition ultimately serves as a stark reminder of the enduring, and perhaps increasing, importance of revolutionary approaches to anti-racist activism in the face of the global rise of white supremacy facilitated by extreme right-wing and fascistic regimes today. 

The Lost Legacies of the British Black Panthers: Photography Exhibition by Neil Kenlock is open 19 July to 30 August 2019 at Photofusion Brixton and 198 Contemporary Arts & Learning.

Featured image: picture of Neil Kenlock’s work, by Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya

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