Notting Hill Carnival 1980s by Armet Francis. © Armet Francis.
Kate Smith met up with three influential photographers at the Museum of London's major new exhibition.
"I didn't learn anything about black history in school - about slavery, or where we came from, or anything about Africa. We were thinking - well what about me?"
These are the words of Neil Kenlock, captured on a cinema sized screen at the entrance to the Museum of London's new exhibition Roots to Reckoning. He is musing about his experiences in a 1960s London school, and the gradual process that led him to join the Black Panther movement.
Roots to Reckoning is on show until February 26 2006 and shows work by three black British photographers born in Jamaica: Charlie Philips and Armet Francis as well as Neil Kenlock.
Photographer Neil Kenlock. Courtesy Museum of London.
It’s a substantial exhibition of their work drawn from over 40 years, but even so it is remarkable how much of the history of black life in Britain you can see captured in these photographs. Some are street scenes - of ordinary life - of celebrities - of fashion shoots - of protests against racism and police brutality and the rising Black Panther movement.
In the accompanying video interviews with the three photographers, you also get a sense of their personal life stories and how the black community had to politicise to survive in Britain. This politics lies behind even some of the glossy modelling shots.
Studio Portrait, London 1968 by Armet Francis. © Armet Francis.
Neil Kenlock co-founded the magazine Roots in 1979 and recalls "we had to define our own beauty.... people tend to accept what Hollywood says". He talks about how black photographers moved away from a definition of beauty that looked for white characteristics as a sign of beauty in black women.
Photographer Charlie Phillips. Courtesy Museum of London.
Charlie Philips recalls how he became sick of taking paparazzi style photographs, and is now more concerned with taking photographs for documentation rather than art, adding: "What makes a good photograph is to be honest."
Piss House Pub, the local name for the pub on the corner of Blenheim Crescent and Portobello Road, London 1969 by Charlie Phillips. © Charlie Phillips.
Nevertheless, his photographs work on both levels - capturing a casual kiss in the "Piss House Pub" or Muhammad Ali, his teeth a blur of energy, as he speaks before a boxing match.
For many years Philips gave up photography, discouraged by a lack of success, and many of the pictures that you can now see displayed sat in a suitcase under his bed.
Muhammad Ali speaking before his contest with Jurgen Blin in Zurich in 1971 by Charlie Phillips. © Charlie Phillips.
Armet Francis describes how he was brought up in Jamaica to "think I had a franchise in the British Empire" and then experiencing the reality of life in London after he joined his parents when he was 10. His pictures reveal how his interest grew in the black diaspora - what he describes as the "Black Triangle" of Africans both living in Africa and dispersed to America, the Caribbean and the UK.
Photographer Armet Francis. Courtesy Museum of London.
The exhibition takes up the whole of the Linbury Gallery at the Museum of London with rooms for each artist's work plus some appropriately 1960s sofas to settle on.
I asked Charlie Philips what he thought about the representation of black culture in museums over the last 20 years. He said that for a long time there was nothing at all and that therefore black people did not go and now that there are history events they tend to circle around the same few topics - arts, entertainment, carnival. He would like to see more representation of black scientists and innovators.
Roots to Reckoning in its measured account of so many different aspects of black life is a good start in this direction.
This exhibition is just a first step for the Museum of London which is committed to building a permanent, publicly accessible archive of the work of all three photographers.