The Black British Renaissance coins not only the resurgence of interest in Black British culture from music to art to fashion, it also refers to the fact Black British creatives more than ever before are able to benefit from the renewed and sustained interest in our culture. We are benefitting financially, in cultural capital, creative capital or just in experience and most significantly as observers because the representation of us is higher, more authentic and more diverse than ever. In addition, we have far more control and ownership over the ways we are depicted. This has largely been made possible through the internet which is significantly less regulated and exclusionary than spaces offline. As well as globalisation which has exposed and brought to us new and engaged audiences. The power behind this renaissance is only due to grow because audiences today are ever more likely to be ‘prosumers’. They do not just passively consume but are actively inspired to create and distribute products, services or content themselves. Lefebvre said ‘Where life is produced by the people who produce life, but these people are oppressed, their contributions are not recognised’. A relevant example is the Windrush generation of photographers who documented Black British culture. Vanley Burke, who is known as the godfather of Black British photography said “History is a by-product of life and it will be written whether we participate in the process or not”. Despite a lot of unrest and struggle at the time, the Windrush generation of photographers committed to photographing our unique community at an important time in British history. As a result, they laid the foundations for myself and my peers to be able to thrive in creative industries today. For instance, James Barnor helped open Ghana’s first colour-processing laboratory, whilst Armet Francis was the first black photographer to have a solo exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery, subsequently opening the door for other black photographers. Yet Theresa May’s deportation of Windrush citizens last year, for trivial reasons or none at all, demonstrated a complete disregard of the Windrush generation as citizens and the contributions they’ve made to British society. Her actions reinforced the status quo in a country that is built and thrives on racism. A key system of which is erasing or minimising the contributions oppressed people have made and continue to make to British society. However, there is currently a Renaissance happening in the UK, one that black people are at the forefront of. We are receiving opportunities we should have had access to years ago. We are creating, innovating and moving popular culture forward. We are starting successful, thriving businesses and dominating the UK music scene, amongst many other amazing things. This is not the first time there has been a surge of interest in black culture as it tends to happen in cycles. However, the current renaissance appears to have more staying power behind it due to the internet, social media and globalisation which has opened up opportunities for black people to create brands, platforms and profitable businesses. We can market, promote and reach local and global audiences via social media mostly for free. As well as create our own brand imagery and message, which is more likely to be authentic and representative of us than brands which are owned by our oppressors and consequently include very few black people in positions of power. Hence owning our own brands and creating the imagery for them becomes a kind of emancipation through representation. This led me to think about contemporary fashion images and the shift in focus from selling fashion to selling what is fashionable, such as a lifestyle, person or aesthetic. Many fashion photographs have moved towards a documentary style of photography. The contemporary fashion photograph is largely defined by the people, places, objects and lifestyles depicted in them with the clothing being the cherry on top. This new wave of images are legitimised by the stamp of a brand name. Using this as a starting point for my recent MA fashion photography unit; New Iterations in Fashion Photography, I decided to document the black cultural renaissance. I intended to insert myself further into the sites where image makers, designers, stylists and creatives involved in the black cultural renaissance were gathering. Showing snapshots of the everyday lifestyles, social gatherings and associations that are behind the scenes of the black cultural renaissance and the profound change I believe it is laying the foundations for in the future. I would have captured these images on 35mm film and polaroid as they give an evocative, intimate and off the cuff feel that I believe will resonate with my intended audience. In addition, analogue photography seems to have a nostalgia that is intrinsic to it and this is a project I hope will be revisited in the future if this renaissance, as I believe it will be, becomes significant. So in a way, I am looking forward and asking what will be the past in the future? The application of fashion is natural in my work, as I instinctively see the world through a fashion lens and style, I feel, is the essence to the renaissance. I was inspired to explore the subcultural significance of branding partially due to a series I create on my platform Front Row Zine called Behind the Brand which profiles upcoming black fashion designers. As well as by brands like A-COLD-WALL* and LOEWE who communicate conceptual narratives through branding really well. I also consider a global perspective, looking specifically at Ghanaian collective and streetwear brand Free the Youth. The images I capture would be stamped with a logo that I feel represents this movement, which I will collaborate with a graphic designer to create. Due to COVID19 I was forced to approach this project from a different perspective. So I pivoted and decided to turn the lens inward and look at my evolution and history which was actually really beneficial. As a result, the project temporarily became a space to explore my position within the Black British renaissance. Growing up in a predominantly white area, I did not find role models that looked like me and were doing what I wanted to do until I had access to the internet and social media. So I’ve looked at how this renaissance is a space I currently operate in which I did not imagine was possible when I was growing up and it is a movement I hope to contribute to and continue to be a part of. The result of this was the creation of the brand ‘B A D’ an acronym that came from the words brave, audacious, daring but spells out a negative word, frequently associated with race and black identity. However, making the making BAD an acronym is a way of taking power back and redefining the word with the participation of the viewer to something positive. It also draws on other cultural references that can be made such as Michael Jackson’s album by the same name. In my recent project for New Iterations in Fashion photography, B A D explored themes such as heritage, family, beauty, naturality, black aesthetics, digital culture and sign systems. As we seem to be easing out of lockdown and the initial panic and scare of coronavirus has calmed down I believe I will be able to return to the initial idea of a documentary style project capturing the sites this renaissance is happening in, and use these images to create an art based lifestyle ‘brand’. I will keep the brand name of BAD, although the logo might change, but the aim of the brand will remain the same: to explore concepts related to black identity, how this is manifesting through the renaissance and critiquing its sustainability. My final project will also include interviews and focus groups with my peers, interrogating their thoughts on the renaissance, where they think it is heading and how they are contributing to it. I am aware that although I have created a brand, it is not necessarily going to create any change. However, I believe it could create impact if I realised BAD as an actual brand, that collaborates with designers and image makers. When collaborating with BAD they will be able to make work that is more conceptual than their current branding, as the aim would be focused on exploring concepts around black identity rather than making sales. The work we create could then be exhibited on clothes which become politicised in the way designers like Graces Wales Bonner or Vivienne Westwood are political with their clothing and imagery. A portion of any money made would be used to pay it forward to upcoming black creatives and assist them in realising their ideas. My project relates to this year’s theme of commitment as celebrating blackness is something I have been passionate about for a long time and a lot of the work I do is with the goal of empowering black people. I almost don’t have a choice to not be committed to exploring issues surrounding race and identity in my life and photography work. I think you are quite a privileged black person if you don’t feel the need to be dedicated to issues surrounding race and identity, in a racist world. This much is clear with the recent and tragic death of George Floyd in America due to being murdered by police officers. It is not an isolated incident from the racism, discrimination and police brutality that happens in the UK. As a black image maker it can feel like a heavy obligation but reading up on the works of scholars such as Kobena Mercer who writes about the burden of representation on black artists, puts things into perspective. It can also feel restricting as the freedom to create work that doesn’t centre on race doesn’t feel as accessible because it might not be recognised from institutions if it doesn’t focus on race. It can even feel like ignoring or denying your lived experience. Therefore, the Black British renaissance is something I am committed to exploring, contributing to and giving back to, so that the next generation of black image makers and creatives have the choice and freedom to explore themes that do not have to centre on race and can still be taken seriously.
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