A New Language: Duro Olowu and the Becoming of Black Britain

Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah; Handsworth Songs (1986) single channel, 16mm color film transferred to video, sound, 58 minutes 33 seconds (AKOM860001) (© Smoking Dogs Films; courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery)

The following essay “A New Language: Duro Olowu and the Becoming of Black Britain” is reprinted from the exhibition catalogue for Duro Olowu: Seeing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The exhibition is curated by Naomi Beckwith.

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In the early 1970s the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. took a job as a correspondent in the London bureau of Time magazine. Overjoyed to find himself in a country apparently free of America’s racial barriers, Gates immersed himself in the social scene of the capital’s black community. But his excitement quickly “soured into frustration.” Black people in London were outsiders, he discovered — marginalized, powerless, jobless, and disaffected. At a party in a vacant house full of young people, the reggae pounding and ganja smoke thick in the air, Gates was struck by the joylessness of the revels. The mood was brittle. Faces were set hard. Nobody laughed or even spoke. “No matter how many drinks on a Saturday night,” he reflected of his fellow partygoers, it was clear that “London did not belong to them.”

Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah; Handsworth Songs (1986) single channel, 16mm color film transferred to video, sound, 58 minutes 33 seconds (AKOM860001) (© Smoking Dogs Films; courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery)

Twenty-five years later Gates returns to Britain. It is the 1990s and he finds the status of black people much changed. A stylish, self-assured younger black generation is now making their presence felt, animating London and redefining the terms of their participation in the life of the nation: “a culture that is distinctively black and British can be said to be in full flower, both on the streets and in the galleries.” How has such a transformation taken place, he wonders? Who are the people leading the change? And what is it about the nature of contemporary Britain that has made for their flourishing?

Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah; Handsworth Songs (1986) single channel, 16mm color film transferred to video, sound, 58 minutes 33 seconds (AKOM860001) (© Smoking Dogs Films; courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery)

The developments that Gates hails originated in the mid-1980s when a wave of prodigiously talented young black creative figures first began coming to the fore in Britain: visual artists such as Lubaina Himid and Sonia Boyce; the filmmaking groups Sankofa, Ceddo, and Black Audio Film Collective; photographers such as Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Ingrid Pollard; pop stars like Neneh Cherry; and writers including Ben Okri and Caryl Phillips. They were active in art, pop culture, and the academy, with work in one sector frequently informing that of practitioners in other territories so that a collective lifting up across disciplines appeared to be taking place. “Their presence,” writes the theorist Kobena Mercer, “has critically transformed the culture.” For the first time in the nation’s history, it was possible to identify “Black Britain as a cultural space” with the desires and concerns of a people hitherto voiceless now articulated with thrilling urgency and sophistication.

Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah; Handsworth Songs (1986) single channel, 16mm color film transferred to video, sound, 58 minutes 33 seconds (AKOM860001) (© Smoking Dogs Films; courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery)

It is within this milieu of intense activity that we can also best situate the evolution of Duro Olowu’s creative practice. Olowu was born in 1965 in Lagos, Nigeria, where he spent most of his childhood before he arrived for schooling in Britain in 1981. The nation was angry and unruly under the divisive rule of Margaret Thatcher. In Olowu’s first year, race riots roiled Brixton and other inner-city areas across the country, and within a few years Britain would weather both the Falklands War and the bitter industrial dispute of a major miners’ strike. Olowu was dismayed by the “atmosphere of injustice” he found in Britain. In addition to its laissez faire economic agenda, Thatcher’s government also promulgated an identity politics of nationalism, nostalgia for Empire, and intolerance of racial difference: as a Tory party slogan put it, “It’s great to be Great again.”

Olowu’s parents first met in Britain in the early 1950s. His father, Festus Kayode Olowu, had arrived from Nigeria to study law and train as a barrister, while his Jamaican mother, Inez Rebecca Davidson, came to study nursing. She was part of the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants who were “invited” to come to the United Kingdom between 1948 and 1971 to help rebuild the country and its labor force following the devastation of World War II. By 1959, once his father’s studies were completed, they moved back to Nigeria, a country on the cusp of independence, and settled in Lagos. Olowu knew Britain well before arriving there for school, however. Regular trips and summer holidays to London, where his mother had family, revealed the country’s fractured state. He was unsettled when he saw how his Jamaican cousins who had grown up in London struggled to find a place in a country that seemed hostile to their presence: “I could see they suffered a lot from not being Jamaican or feeling truly British. That was a very difficult place to be because they wanted to belong and know they were rightfully at home.”

For Olowu, the city’s style, culture, art, and music became a means to navigate the questions of politics and identity raised by a nation in flux. Listening to the British reggae acts favored by his cousins — Steel Pulse, Aswad, and Linton Kwesi Johnson, for example — offered an insight into the frustrations that fueled the Brixton riots. Moreover, the sharpness with which his cousins dressed in their urban Trenchtown style led him to an awareness of how “young, black, British West Indians used style as an elegant form of pride and resistance.” Olowu had already gained an early education in fashion as a form of identity and self-assertion from his mother, whose style was “a real mix of Nigerian clothing with clothes designed by European designers that she loved, as well as with special things that her dressmaker made for her in Lagos,” and he saw at this time that “there was a real sense of traditional style and international elegance that was very inspiring: a cultural joi de vivre that fed off the mood of pan-African pride with an interest in international affairs.” But at the age of 18, while browsing a magazine, Olowu discovered Horace Ove’s photograph, Walking Proud (1970). The picture was a revelation.

Ove’s photograph shows a dandyish young black couple cutting a swath through a busy street. Their clothes are all delicious exaggeration — flared collars, billowing bell bottoms, towering platforms, headgear cocked at dangerous angles atop their Afros. Photographed from behind, we do not see their faces; we join them instead in surveying the crowd, which has left a space around them as if dazzled by their splendor. But what are all these people doing out on the street anyway? Are we in the midst of celebration? The Notting Hill Carnival, maybe? Or some moment of protest? It’s not clear. But Ove’s image shows us two Britains: on one hand the pre–mass immigration nation of drab suits and shapeless coats embodied by the elderly white couple on the pavement, and on the other a country in which dressing up is about demanding to be seen on your terms rather than being consigned to the margins of society. The latter Britain is occupied by the black people gathered in this photograph — the boy in the red top, the woman in the Dutch wax print dress, the girl in the flowered skirt. This is the country where the dandyish couple are royalty at least for a day. For Olowu, the sophistication and ease of their appearance marks the first stirrings of a distinctively black British style that operated in contradistinction to the more formal Sunday-best approach of an older Caribbean generation that included his mother’s brothers and sisters: “The photograph represents elegance, activism and awareness, all the travails of living in Britain but also the shared will to exist elegantly and be strong and have a life and be part of things on your terms.”

Olowu’s own designs are today a vivid juxtaposition of colors, fabrics, textures, and bold prints, all in pursuit of “a narrative of ideas” that posits clothing as a cornerstone of culture and identity. He regards Ove’s image as a pivotal work in the evolution of his approach to fashion:

I had always admired the work of many great designers like Stephen Burrows, Yves Saint Laurent, Madame Grès, Willi Smith, Walter Albini, Issey Miyake, Kansai Yamamoto, Joe Casely-Hayford, Madeleine Vionnet, John Flett, and BodyMap. But seeing that image made me realize that it was all about how one wore the clothes. And also that the greatest form of resistance is the way you present yourself. Horace really captured that in one picture. Just to see that cosmopolitan approach to style—it was a turning point for me.

Even as Olowu was beginning to explore fashion’s role as a form of personal politics, others were already forming explicit links between music, style, identity, and pop culture. In December 1988 the pop star Neneh Cherry appeared on British TV with her debut single “Buffalo Stance.” The song melded hip-hop and cut-and-paste sampling in glittering fusion, with Cherry as the charismatic presence at its center. Eight months pregnant, she gave an arresting performance dressed in a black Lycra skirt and chunky trainers, a dinner plate–sized gold medallion swinging from her neck. Both Cherry’s distinctive dress sense and the title of her song were inspired by the work of the pioneering fashion stylist Ray Petri. His innovative shoots for The Face and i-D involved, in Cherry’s description, “tough mixed race boys in skirts and a pair of DM boots, utility sportswear with high fashion. Casting girls as boys, kids as men; breaking down boundaries and creating iconic images that changed the fashion industry forever.” Petri led a multicultural collective of photographers, designers, and models that called themselves Buffalo, after the Jamaican term for rebels and rude boys. The crew included Cherry, stylist Judy Blame, Nick Kamen, and a teenage Naomi Campbell, among others. When Cherry and her “funny little posse from London” traveled to the United States, they were received with bafflement by a music industry unnerved by a racially heterogeneous ensemble that was, in her words, “too black” for Top 40 radio and not “black enough” for the urban market.

At home, the same cross-cultural makeup gave them a compelling contemporary identity. Cherry and Buffalo represented a vision of Britain joyously animated, not diminished, by racial difference. The crew helped set the template for style-conscious, multiracial music collectives such as Soul II Soul and Massive Attack — groups that, in the words of Soul II Soul founder Jazzie B, merged “music and fashion and attitude.”

This is not to say that the emergence of a black British creative generation was heralded without criticism or backlash. In 1986, for example, Black Audio Film Collective released John Akomfrah’s groundbreaking film essay Handsworth Songs, which centered on the 1985 race riots in London and Birmingham. Despite the fact that it was lauded by critics and received multiple awards, the film suffered condemnations and attacks from a number of media sectors, with some regarding it as opaque and didactic, and others, like the journal Race Today Review, deriding its “contrived passions and false memories.” Watching Handsworth Songs unfurl, it’s clear that the goal was not simply to overturn old stereotypes but to create “a new language,” a “poetics of affect, beyond the scope of documentary media,” that could speak with urgency and empathy to the struggle for belonging and identity of Britain’s black population. The fact that these generative efforts were at times overlooked or even dismissed outright highlights a tension that existed at the center of this creative emergence — a tension between the desire, as Akomfrah put it, “to find and legitimise new versions of becoming” and the very history they were attempting to leave behind.

The travails of an earlier generation undoubtedly frame the stresses highlighted by Akomfrah and other emerging artists of this era. Immigration to Britain from the Commonwealth countries of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean rose steeply in the 1950s; the new arrivals were legal citizens of the UK, but popular concern grew about “a coloured invasion” of the country. In the succinct words of historian Kathleen Paul, “the ‘British people’ were not ‘coloured,’ and conversely, ‘coloured’ people were not British …. and never could be British.” All the same, immigrants continued to come, among them a good number of aspiring young artists like Ronald Moody, Frank Bowling, and Uzo Egonu who were received with interest by critics and galleries. But curiosity turned to indifference and, at times, outright disdain. When the Whitechapel Gallery held a 1964 exhibition of young British painters called The New Generation, Bowling’s Royal College of Art peers such as David Hockney and Allen Jones were selected. Bowling was spurned — the nation, he was told, was “not yet ready for a gifted artist of colour.”

It wasn’t until 1989 and the landmark exhibition The Other Story at London’s Hayward Gallery that recognition materialized for this burgeoning group of artists. Curated by artist Rasheed Araeen, the exhibition was the first show in a public space to honor the contribution of the postwar Commonwealth generation. The Other Story marked belated institutional validation for the likes of Bowling, Moody, and Egonu, and it also provided a platform for younger artists associated with the Midlands-based BLK Art Group, such as Lubaina Himid CBE, Keith Piper, and Eddie Chambers.

In that same year, Paris welcomed another historically significant exhibition: Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou. Like The Other Story, this exhibition focused on artists of color excluded from the Western canon. The critical difference of Magiciens de la Terre, however, was predicated on its anthropological notion of authenticity — an insistence, as Jean Fisher has noted, “that those who speak from a place of difference should also represent it in recognisable signs.” In this formulation, artists from the global elsewhere existed outside the lineage of modernism; the influence of Western art on their work was tantamount to “illegitimate ‘contamination.’” The Other Story took a contrary view. It stressed the role of Commonwealth-originated artists as an important and overlooked part of the story of modernism itself, and it recognized that the plural, hybrid nature of the artists’ identities — their often painful experiences in negotiating questions of background and belonging — was fundamental to the nature of their practice.

By framing their work in such terms, Araeen’s exhibition established an important new basis for black artists in Britain. Beyond laying down improved terms for their interaction with museums and galleries, the exhibition prompted them to think further about the manner of their engagement with ideas of blackness and Britishness. Moreover, it did so against wider societal changes that were also helping create the circumstances for greater black visibility in Britain, including the election of the first black politicians to the Houses of Parliament in 1987; greater funding opportunities for black artists in the capital thanks to the policies of a radical left-wing local government; and a large-scale weakening of authority within historical power structures that made for new room amid the “gaps and fissures arising from the chaos of the coincidence between the postcolonial and the postmodern.”

Dawoud Bey, “Stuart McPhail Hall I, London, UK,” (1998) set of two Polaroid prints (copyright Dawoud Bey, courtesy Stephen Daiter Gallery)

Against that backdrop, artists expanded the boundaries of black creative practice across the decade, creating a new “hybridized cultural terrain” around them and reconceptualizing race not as the fixed, essential proposition that had so constrained their predecessors, but as a zone of possibility open to a multitude of subjective interpretations. In works such as Isaac Julien’s Territories (1984) or Sonia Boyce’s From Tarzan to Rambo … (1987), for example, blackness is a social construct that opens up complex questions of history, culture, and identity. In the photography of Rotimi Fani-Kayode it is a terrain for deeply personal explorations of the self: the black body becoming the “point of intersection for … different planes of meaning — racial, sexual, cultural — which constantly disrupt and unsettle one another.” Here, we find the complex interactions of race, aesthetics, and belonging that Stuart Hall had in mind when he described the practice of black British creative figures in the 1980s:

Instinctively, they work across cultural boundaries and vocabularies. They work with and on “difference.” But they do not have a binary, either/or, conception of it. Rather, they seem to subscribe to what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida calls différence: “the playing movement that produces these effects of difference, a weave of similarities and differences that refuse to separate into fixed binary oppositions.” They know that everyone comes from somewhere, speaks from some place, is multiply (sic) positioned. But they don’t see cultures as autonomous, self-sufficient entities that bind people forever into common scripts or seal them off from a wider dialogic conversation.

For artists that came to prominence in the 1990s such as Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili, and Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA), race became a subject that could be approached in increasingly less constrained terms and instead as the springboard for a dizzying set of aesthetic feints and doublings. Shonibare, for instance, has contrasted his own work with what he characterizes as the earnestness of his immediate forebears in the BLK Art Group: “I wanted to come to things from a different angle and look at the notion of frivolity and playfulness.” Shonibare is careful to point out, however, that such a shift does not involve the abandonment of a topic like race, only a change of strategy in how to approach it: “Being a black artist looking at frivolity and playfulness is the least expected thing I could do — and that has a political resonance in light of the history of black artists working in Britain …. it also sets up a series of expectations on behalf of others about who I am and what I do — expectations that, I hope, are being constantly put into question by my work.”

It’s important to note here that even as black artists and cultural actors were achieving unprecedented recognition, they did so against a background of bigotry in British society. The same decade that saw Okri win the Booker Prize and Ofili and McQueen awarded the Turner Prize in consecutive years was also that in which black schoolboys Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor were murdered in brutal, racist attacks. Rather than picturing the evolution of black cultural presence in Britain as an irresistible journey from margin to mainstream, we can more fruitfully regard it as, in Paul Gilroy’s words, “a series of bitter negotiations” toward justice and equality.

All the same, the “versions of becoming” practiced by black artists and creative figures from the 1980s onward helped establish a change in society. At the start of the 1990s, Conservative Party grandee Norman Tebbit tried to stoke old prejudices about the alien Other with his “cricket test.” First- and second-generation Commonwealth immigrants that supported their country of origin, rather than England, at international cricket matches could not, to Tebbit’s mind, be seen as truly British, even if they were born in the country. Tebbit’s binary notion of belonging, however, bore little relation to the multiple positionalities and sensibility of difference that increasingly defined black British cultural identity. Nor did it take into account the many ways in which the center of gravity of Britishness itself was shifting as a consequence of greater black voice and visibility.

Tebbit would have done better to pay heed to the words of Stuart Hall. A Jamaican immigrant who moved to Britain in 1951, the scholar correctly anticipated the changes transforming British society in an address in the mid-1980s that, we might guess, was delivered before a predominantly white audience: “Thinking about my own sense of identity, I realise that it has always depended on the fact of being a migrant, on the difference from the rest of you … Now that, in the postmodern age, you all feel dispersed, I become centered. What I’ve thought of as dispersed and fragmented comes, paradoxically, to be the representative modern experience! This is ‘coming home’ with a vengeance!”

How, over time, can we say the black British centeredness described by Hall has manifested itself? What does it look like today? How does it feel? One of the most resonant examples of that viewpoint is the work of Olowu. The British-Nigerian designer launched his eponymous label in 2004 and since then has been internationally celebrated for his bold use of color, pattern, and textile. In his hands the work of creating clothes functions as an act of careful synthesis. Olowu collects rare and antique textiles from across the world including West and North Africa, Europe, India, and the Middle East, sometimes utilizing them as the basis for his own designs. But the fabrics offer an even more profound source of inspiration, leading him to unanticipated insights about the nature of creative practice. In the skill of the craftspeople responsible for some of the intricately hand-woven cloths from nineteenth-century West Africa or lushly printed haute couture French and Swiss fabrics from the early twentieth century, for example, he finds a connection to how contemporary artists work globally today. The similarity is “between artists who use figuration, video or photography as a way to strive toward their own private way, and the weaver on the loom trying to balance the different tensions to create a textile that reflects the personal, emotional, political, or sexual perspective of the maker.”

With the benefit of such a broad perspective, Olowu’s designs become a weaving together of place and memory, geography, and history. His fall 2014 Afro Deco collection, for instance, simultaneously referenced the 1930s artist and furniture designer Eyre de Lanux and the yellow, green, and orange palette of a painting by Ofili, The Raising of Lazarus (2007). Ultimately, Olowu’s creative sensibility seems to involve both a profound attachment to the art and material culture that surrounds him and, at the same time, a desire to stand apart from it. Like his mother making her stylish way through Lagos or Ove’s dandyish couple parting the crowds around them in London, the goal is to assert visibility through dress — but to do so only and ever on one’s own terms.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, “Mercy over Matter” (2017) oil on canvas 78 15/16 x 47 1/4 inches LYB17.002 (© Lynette Yiadom-Boakye; courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and Corvi-Mora, London)

This cosmopolitan approach is something that also informs his practice as a curator. In Seeing Chicago, Olowu gathers together a diverse selection of painters, sculptors, and photographers from Cindy Sherman to Shirin Neshat, Kerry James Marshall to René Magritte, Roy DeCarava to Dawoud Bey. Many artists in the exhibition are those with whom he has a deep affinity. He is a lifelong admirer of Francis Bacon, for instance, and he considers the painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye “one of the most important figures of her generation.” But in addition to demonstrating the breadth of his enthusiasms, the exhibition is also an acutely personal evocation of outlook and identity. Had he come to Britain at an earlier period in time, Olowu might have found his talent denied and his place restricted to the peripheries of society. Instead, he arrived just as a first black British creative generation was making its voice heard. His experience of otherness was not a marker of exclusion but an enlightened perspective from which to better understand, and speak back to, the complexities of modern society both in Britain and elsewhere. In Seeing Chicago, we discover what it means to create “a weave of similarities and differences that refuse to separate into fixed binary oppositions.” We see a proposition for how to move through the world on your own terms, holding within you all the contradiction and uncertainty, the richness and unscriptable beauty.

At a party in a vacant house full of young people, the reggae pounding and ganja smoke thick in the air, Gates was struck by the joylessness of the revels. The mood was brittle. Faces were set hard. Nobody laughed or even spoke.Read MoreArticles, Black Britain, Catalogue Essays, Duro Olowu, Sunday EditionHyperallergicRead More

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