Tam Joseph: Observers Are Worried

... I first came across Tam’s work close on four years ago, in London. These pieces were “Spirit of the Carnival” and “Anyone Seen Tony Birbeck?” Both of these paintings are included in the exhibition. “Spirit of the Carnival” is a poignant, piercing commentary on the ever-increasing, ever-conspicuous police presence at the annual Notting Hill Carnival. Some observers, myself included, believe that the agents of the law systematically attempt to contain and control Black collective cultural and political expression. Some observers believe this same police force has an horrific history of attacking and beating Black people with alarming regularity. And some observers believe that whenever we take to the streets in peace, they take to the streets with sinister riot gear and ferocious alsatians. “Spirit of the Carnival” tells us what we already know, but does so in such a way as to make that knowledge immediate, immediate, raw, undisguised and frightening. In contrast, “Anyone Seen Tony Birbeck?” tells a sad, sad story that has deliberately been kept from us. (Though not, I hasten to add, for humanitarian reasons). On a night in January 1981, 13 Black youngsters lost their lives in a fire which engulfed a house, full of party-goers, in New Cross, London. Many believed the fire was started deliberately – the work of racists operating in the area. To the Black community, the deaths became known as “The New Cross Massacre”. The press and the authorities, however, saw things differently. To them, the deaths were almost incidental and insignificant. As far as Fleet St and Parliament were concerned, practically nothing had happened, and there was certainly no need for an independent public enquiry, which the Black community was demanding. The cry “13 DEAD NOTHING SAID” was born.

And there were 14, not 13 victims. The 14th was Tony Birbeck, a young man who had been at the party, and had seen 13 of his friends perish in the inferno. Feelings of guilt, terror and trauma played havoc with his mind and, like so many other Black people, he was committed to a mental hospital. Upon his discharge he committed suicide. Again, to the eternal shame of Britain’s news services, this tragic death went unreported and ignored...

The above extracts are from an Introduction by Eddie Chambers in Observers Are Worried: Paintings & Sculpture by Tam Joseph brochure. Exhibition held at St Pancras Library & Shaw Theatre Foyer, 8 November – 6 December 1986