Tribute to the Martyrs

The ways in which black heroism has been documented in the African diaspora bears particular scrutiny. While commemoration of individual heroes may exist on a relatively modest scale, compared to the output of African American artists as so ably demonstrated by Bernier, black British artists in particular have produced no end of engaging, dynamic work that seeks to memorialize the lives, struggles, and deaths of the countless black lives lost during the centuries of slavery. In some ways, this speaks to the importance of acknowledging the often unnamed or unknown individuals with whom these artists share so much history. But the relative paucity of commemorations of individual black heroes in wider African diasporic art also points to a relatively modest tally of named and identifiable black British figures of resistance and the ways in which these individuals have yet to achieve any sort of genuinely canonical status, the sort of status that might lead to their being the subjects of singular art works in the vein of those brought to us by Bernier.

When a new generation of black artists emerged in Britain in the early 1980s, they took as their heroes, and visualized accordingly, such African American figures as George Jackson, Huey Newton, Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, and so on. It was iconic figures such as these who loomed large in the consciousness of artists such as Marlene Smith, Donald Rodney, and Keith Piper. In a great many instances, the artistic embrace of these recognizable individuals reflected the Pan-African sensibilities of the Black Arts Movement, with its dynamic agenda of celebrating struggle and memorializing resistance. One particular piece of work, by Piper, merits considerable scrutiny. With his compelling and influential book, Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton had emerged as a charming, charismatic, tragic hero/antihero of the Black Power era, and Piper sought to memorialize Newton in an astonishing work of 1982. Within the work, Piper stretched untreated canvas over a fairly large frame. He then took a piece of cardboard of stenciled lettering with the words "Black Panther Party for Self Defence" [sic] and, using an aerosol can of red paint, repeatedly stenciled the words across the canvas in dramatic fashion.2 In the middle of the canvas Piper adhered a photocopy of Newton, behind prison bars, flicking a V sign. Not the inwardly turned V sign historically beloved of peace activists, but the altogether different, more assertive, more uncompromising outwardly turned V sign, with its decidedly different readings, more akin to today's gesture of a single, raised, middle finger. Across one of Newton's eyes and part of his forehead and hair, Piper had painted, in translucent red ink, a single five-pointed star, symbolizing Newton's socialist credentials and the ways in which socialist thought was such a dramatic underpinning of Black Panther activism. Approximately A4 in dimension, the photocopy of Newton's portrait was completed with a salvaged thin picture frame, thereby emphasizing the status of this troubled Black Power revolutionary.

Though Newton was still alive at the time that Piper made the work, it nevertheless functioned as a memorial to both a fallen revolutionary and a fallen revolutionary movement. Piper had layered the mixed media work with a particularly pithy, succinct encapsulation of the rise and fall of one of America's most intriguing revolutionary movements of modern times: "A BROTHER ONCE DECLARED WAR ON A CORRUPT SOCIETY. THE CORRUPT SOCIETY WON BECAUSE NO-ONE BELIEVED IT WOULDN'T." Thus, Piper alluded, in typically dramatic fashion, not only to the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, but also gave his audiences a compelling narrative with which to understand the reasons for the group's existence, and a tragic yet powerful summary of the reasons for its failure, which devastatingly included societal complicity.

The full version of the above text, "Tribute to the Martyrs", written by Eddie Chambers appeared as a comment piece on Celeste-Marie Bernier's book, Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination (University of Virginia Press 2012), for African American Review Volume 45.4, Winter 2012: 510 - 513. A roundtable, with the other contributors being Zoe Trodd, Robert Levine, Patricia Hills, Alan Rice, Richard Newman, and Celeste-Marie Bernier.