Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Just back from the Black British Style exhibition at the V&A with Janina, who'll undoubtably be expressing her opinion before too long. I completely disagree with Kristen's review on the 24 Hour Museum website. I'm thankful to Janina for getting me in free on her member's card, because having to pay to see such a crap exhibition would have been a real nuisance, even more of one than the people insisting on checking people's bags as they left the museum, presumably to make sure we hadn't decided to nick a piece of Vietnamese pottery to go on the mantlepiece.

The exhibition was quite small, for one thing. This meant that too much got too brief a mention. As with my visit to the Science Museum I found the signs too short and gave no real explanation as to the context of any of it. They were also badly placed in some areas so it wasn't always clear what they were referring to.

Next the exhibition couldn't decide to go with either grouping everything along a timeline or by style, so it started with one and by the other end of the hall was doing it by the other. So, on entering the hall, where do we begin? With the suits that people wore as they came off the Emperor Windrush. Two of them. Then a picture (which you can see in the 24 review) of a black bus conductress. Then some traditional costume-type clothes. Two-thirds of the main hall use packing crates as their stage. Do you see what they did there? When the whole immigration issue is dealt with with the first two exhibits the use of packing crates for the fashion of people who live in this country, are part of communities in this country, may well have been born and spent the majority of their lives in this country becomes offensive. It suggests that these people will never be considered truly 'British'. And also, packing crates? If no-one at the planning meeting had been willing to put their hands up and point out the offensive opinion packing crates gives out surely someone else would have at least suggested suitcases? Packing crates are for things rather than people.

What is Black Fashion? Well, it seems that if I and a black man wore the same t-shirt, his t-shirt would be included by virtue of being close to black skin. It was all rather hermetic, as though this were some exhibit of a remote island people, untainted by contact with any other culture. Who are the black fashion designers? Where are the names? What are the labels? How does Black British Fashion differ from and relate to Black American Fashion? There's no consideration of that here. And when you have a picture of Dizzee Rascal (2003) next to Professor Grif (1986) next to (IIRC) N.W.A (circa 1991) next to a wall of trainers, because their Addidas is very important to da yoof, where was the acknowledgement of how black culture appropriated and fed into other cultures globewide? The 'black power' exhibits consisted of a small box on the end of one of the rows with a picture of Diane Abbot at the '84 Labour conference and a 'Free Angela Davis' t-shirt. And that is it. Black Fashion and religion consists mainly of a collection of hats worn by some woman, a couple of suits that didn't seem special in any way, and photos of the chests of what a male and female member of the Nation of Islam would be expected to wear, they didn't even get to have a full body shot. Yet space is found for costumes worn by some pop group (Mystique?).

No, this was awful. It's an exhibition you'd expect the V&A to put on twenty years ago if all their staff were old white men. In 2004 we should expect much more.


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