Blackness as a Cultural Icon

During the spring of 1985, questions about the effectiveness and validity of anti-racist art work were uppermost in my mind. It was during this time that I was producing my THE BLACK BASTARD AS A CULTURAL ICON exhibition. The exhibition was to centre around the ever-so-popular ‘Golly’ image, as persistently used by the jam and marmalade makers Robertson’s, and a plethora of related and similar images found in 20th century children’s books, comics and so on…

…A seemingly timid question aimed at those who would seek to use and subvert found historical imagery in the cause of anti-racist work is this: why bother to resurrect imagery which, in historical terms, has passed its sell-by-date? Does not the act of re-presenting racist imagery run a very obvious risk of giving discredited imagery a fresh airing? And, in the case of racist imagery, doesn’t ignorance amount to political bliss? The challenge of THE BLACK BASTARD AS A CULTURAL ICON was to produce a body of work that would effectively and decisively challenge racist imagery and iconography and simultaneously dispel these quite valid fears and reservations.

I started with the exhibition title, which was essentially an attempt to encapsulate the underlying nature of the golliwog, vis-à-vis British culture and history. Black Bastard is a particularly vicious and brutal term, much used by racists – a sort of British equivalent of the n word. By contrast the golliwog is supposed to be a cute and lovable doll. My intention was to show that the golliwog and the term Black Bastard were very much interchangeable. (Indeed, the term of abuse wog is very likely a derivative of golliwog). By my use of the title I also intended to show that the golliwog and related imagery were an integral part of British racism and British culture.

From the outset it was clear that humour and an obviously personal narrative would be the most effective means of employing and utilising the wealth of found imagery I was quickly able to acquire. The use of humour and an autobiographical narrative seemed to me to be necessary because I was anxious to circumvent the charge that anti-racist work somehow only preaches to the converted. Though I’ve yet to hear someone convincingly define and differentiate who is converted from who is not, I nevertheless wanted to ensure that no-one could adopt a seen it all before/know what you’re saying approach when viewing the work. I believe that the bulk of racist imagery remains inherently so because anti-racist image makers are unable to bridge effectively and constructively the gap between image and viewer. It is through this disconnection that a piece of work so often fails to lock into the viewer’s mind, fails to make the viewer uncomfortable, fails to make the viewer think, and then sends the viewer happily on his or her way, secure in the knowledge that they too are anti-racist, just like they always knew they were.

The above extracts are from an essay by Eddie Chambers “Blackness as a Cultural Icon”, text in Critical Decade: Black British Photography in the 80s, Ten.8 magazine, Birmingham, Volume 2 No. 3, Spring 1992: 122 - 127