by Jagdish Patel

The death of Stuart Hall on the 10th February was marked by worldwide praise for ‘Britain’s leading cultural theorist’. (2014. Stuart Hall – obituary, Daily Telegraph, 10th February,) It is rare for an academic to receive accolades in the mainstream press, and this perhaps reflects how Hall presented his ideas, not only through academic books, but through newspaper articles, periodicals, on television, conference talks and by attending ordinary public meetings.

sh_inline_0My own introduction to Stuart Hall was made by staying up after midnight to watch him present Open University talks. This was in my teens, and even though I didn’t really understand his talks, what I wanted to watch was a radical perspective on black lives in Britain, a perspective that was not articulated in the mainstream television programs.

Stuart Hall would be the first to point out that using the term ‘black’, in relation to one’s identity is not straightforward. Throughout his life, Hall engaged in a continual process of defining and then re-defining his own identity. It is interesting to note that some of the inspiration for this preoccupation with identity derived from his discussions with black artists. In an interview with Maya Jaggi he explained ‘I was writing about identity, and they were practising it, it made me more alert to the way artistic work is an exploratory space in which ideas work themselves out’ (Jaggi, 2000. Prophet at the margins. The Guardian, 8 July).

There is not much written specifically about Stuart Hall’s relationship with photography, even though he wrote prefaces for numerous photography books, and helped launch Autograph ABP (Association of Black Photographers) at the Photographers Gallery in 1988. He was also the Chair of both Autograph and Iniva (the Institute of International Visual Arts), the two leading organisations who promote photographers from ethnic minorities in Britain.

Stuart Hall’s writings about class, race and identity and his own relationship to social history is well documented, and often his writings are spoken in the first person, relating theory to his own autobiography. His personal journey from a radical writer of the ‘New Left’ in the 1960’s, to Black activist in the 1970’s, to Multicultural citizen in the 1980’s to somebody with a global diaspora identity in the 1990’s is well charted in his own writings, as well as the recent films like ‘The Stuart Hall Project’ (2013)

His writings have also charted a history of black artists in Britain, including photographers, in a number of different books, and periodicals. (for example, Different (2001), Black Diaspora Artists in Britain (2006) and The Vertigo of Displacement (2003)) It is interesting to note that the art history he presents in these publications closely mirrors his own personal journey.

Early days

It may seem that I am stating the obvious, but I should start by saying that Britain in 1951, when Hall first arrived from Jamaica, as a Rhodes graduate to Oxford University, and Britain in 2014 are very different places. Although there have been black people in the UK since the 1600’s, (Fryer, 1984) during the period from the 1950’s to the 1970’s black people’s lives were marked by the absence of their presence in history books (Fryer, 1984)(Visram, 2002), discrimination in education, housing and employment resulting in patterns of segregation (Smith, 1989) and widespread racism and racial violence (Bowling, B. 1999). However during the period from the 1980’s to 2000 political campaigning led to enactments of legislation to tackle racist violence and discrimination, (Solomos in Stevenson, 2001) the expansion of the owner occupier housing market led to dispersal of black communities away from inner city ghettos, and globalisation and the expansion of education meant black employment opportunities widened. This process led both to the growth of the black middle classes, but also to a process of intense concentration of poverty for some in black communities. (In appendices 2, I have outlined a more detailed chart of the main events in the history of black peoples lives in Britain during the period from 1950 to 2000)

Stuart Hall (circled) at his matriculation in 1951 © The Warden & Fellows of Merton College

It is very likely therefore that had Stuart Hall arrived on a scholarship to Oxford University in 2014, he would not have met or lived with the black community, as he had done in 1951, and this is related to material factors as much as it is due to people having an international diasporic identity.

Hall wrote, “Identity is formed at the unstable point where the ‘‘unspeakable’’ stories of subjectivity meet the narratives of history, of a culture” (Hall, 1987 pp17). The struggle between the psychological and autobiographical and the historical or political is the basic fodder for many artists, however Hall speaks about the ’unstable point’ where artistic work is produced, and ideas are actually thought out. He is therefore suggesting that the artistic process consists of three elements, social history, ones personal psychology and also the unconscious mind interacting with these factors.

In his writings, he identified four stages in the history of black British artists as follow;

  • Artists who grew up under colonialism but left their homeland to develop a modernist artistic practice in Europe. (for example Sher Gill)
  • Black photographers who started to document the lives of early black immigrants through a documentary style. (for example, Vanley Burke, Ahmet Francis, Pogus Cesear, Horace Ove).
  • The second generation who mainly came from art schools but had a clear outlook based on tackling racism, rather than the anti-colonialism of the elders. (David Lewis, Keith Piper, Ingrid Pollard, and Rotimi Fani-Kayode)
  • A younger generation of artists from the 1990’s onwards whose ideas are not dominated by radical politics, but by a global network of galleries, curators and television. (for example, Mitra Tabrizian)

He also explains that the 1980’s represented a ‘conjuncture’, a turning point, as it was the point in history when the first generation and second generation of immigrants discussed their artistic practices, their differing views of modernism, and their differing views of anti-colonialism and post-colonialism. These debates, and their responses to the social climate during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s transformed their artistic practices. In his view this conjuncture manifests itself within the Black photography community in three ways. Firstly, the debates between pure abstract art and pure documentary are challenged and a new form of constructed image making is developed. Secondly, the recognition of the black body as a racial signifier, partly in response to the work from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, such as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Thirdly, black women begin to examine their own lives, and the influence of black feminism begins to examine the black body, family albums and private lives through photography. “Without this conjuncture of feminism and black politics, the outstanding work of the period by Sonia Boyce, Claudette Holmes, Lubaina Himid, Maud Sulter, Mona Hatoum, Sutapa Biswas, and others would simply never have appeared.’ (Hall, in Bailey, 2005, pp10).

Role of art schools

It is interesting that Hall recognises that the early black settlers came to the UK with a European modernist art perspective, but then he very much underplays the relationship between art schools and black photographers in the subsequent stages.

I would agree with him that it is important to mention how artists under colonial rule were treated, and especially their approach to modernism. Colonial subjects were not permitted to teach or practice the fine arts, only traditional crafts. Fine arts, such as painting, were the realm of the colonial master, and although some subjects did paint, draw and write, this history has been largely hidden. One outcome of this policy has been that ‘artists from the third world had to fight notions of authenticity that froze them in history and enflamed them in dead and distant past’. (Saadar, 2000, p12) As Hall also points out, ‘the attitude today, that modernism somehow belonged intrinsically and exclusively to the West, was in effect part of a wider conspiracy to entangle artists in the Western “grand narrative,” and that salvation lay in the return to neglected indigenous cultural traditions’ (Hall 2005, in Bailey, 2005, pp 7)

For example, Olu Oguibe records the struggle Aina Onabolu faced when developing his fine art practice in Nigeria in early 1900’s. (Saadar, in Areen, Cubitt and Sardar, 2002) Kapur explains, in the same collection, that this colonial policy then encouraged the anti-colonial independence movements to use the ideas of heritage and tradition as an oppositional idea in order t challenge and fight colonial rule. A clear example of this tactic can be seen in the political campaigns started by Mahatma Gandhi to defend the crafts and clothing industry in India, as a oppositional force to the global clothing manufacturing. Kapur argues that ‘we have to bring to the term modern a less monolithic, a less formalistic, indeed less institutional, status so as least to make it what it once was, a vanguard notion leading to a variety of experimental moves’. (Kapur in Areen, Cubitt and Sardar, 2002, pp21)

After fifteen days of fasting self‑portrait 11 August 1930, 11 Rue Bassano, Paris, France (Vintage print, 10.9 X 4.4cm) Inscribed on reverse by Umrao Singh Sher-Gil:USG, Paris 1930

The legacy of these debates from the colonial period has been that black artists and photographers have often addressed the themes of history, memory, belonging, and identity. In photography, we can trace this back to the beginning of photography with the early colonial subjects such as Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, who developed a photography practice in the 1890’s very much in an anti-colonial humanist modernist tradition. His self portraits, depict himself as a Yogi reworking stereotypical Indian imagery.

In the work Sher-Gill, (left) we see the beginnings of the photography being used to explore the intersection of the personal and the political. His daughter, Amrita Sher-Gill (who was nicknamed the Indian, Frida Kahlo), was a famous painter who was educated and worked in Europe and India during the 1920’s and 1930’s, but who eventually moved back to India and showed by anti-colonial radicalism by painting traditional images of India.

The photography of Umroa Singh Sher-Gill, and the painting of his daughter Amrita, as well as the references to Frida Kahlo, highlight how black photographers and artists have often referenced both ideas from art schools, and the notions of modernity and tradition in a manner, which was relevant to their time.



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Jagdish Patel spends his time working as a photographer and writer in London and Nottingham. Previously, he worked in the charity sector with different communities, including spending 10 years as the Assistant Director of human rights charity the Monitoring Group. He is interested in using  photography as a research tool to explore the relationship between place, belonging and identity. The territory covered when we think about this can be vast, covering the issues of ecology, our relationship to land and land ownership, equality and human rights, migration, the politics of race and class, and the act of memory and remembering. He continues to work commercially and manage Saffron Moon Photography. He also co-founded the Nottingham Photographers’ Hub, a social enterprise which helps vulnerable communities through photography. Find him on Twitter @jagdish__patel 


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