BY Olamiju Fajemisin in Opinion | 19 MAR 21
Featured in
Issue 217

Larry Achiampong on Militancy and Protest

The artist speaks with Olamiju Fajemisin on the legacy of Rock Against Racism in the UK

O
BY Olamiju Fajemisin in Opinion | 19 MAR 21

At the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, an exhibition of photographs, videos, posters, badges, stickers, interviews, fan letters and leaflets pertaining to Rock Against Racism – the 1976–82 grassroots anti-fascist movement founded by a group of young, white British punks – traces the permanence of right-wing populism and xenophobia, anti-Black policing and widespread disenfranchisement in the UK. In less than a year, the movement grew into an international organization with groups across Europe, the US, South Africa and Australia. Co-organized with Rock Against Racism – Research ‘n’ Archive Project, the exhibition ‘Rock Against Racism: Militant Entertainment 1976–82’ also presents graphic spreads from the movement’s in-house zine, Temporary Hoarding; documentation of associated campaigns by the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Sexism and the Asian youth and gay rights movements; and, in a deviation from the archaeological nature of the show, two new commissions by British-Ghanaian multidisciplinary artist Larry Achiampong. 

larry achiampong dlwp 2020
Larry Achiampong, What I Hear I Keep, 2020, commissioned by De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea. Courtesy: © Larry Achiampong and Copperfield, 
London

In recent years, Rock Against Racism has been the subject of a hagiography the De La Warr Pavilion show hopes to correct. In White Riot – a 2019 documentary tracing the movement’s initial conception as a one-off ‘love music, hate racism’ event – co-founder Red Saunders says: ‘We want rebel music. Street music. Music that breaks down people’s fear of one another,’ meanwhile neglecting to mention the Black origins of the ‘rebellious’ sounds he so craved. Grainy footage of mostly white teenagers flickers between clips of National Front rallies and stills of gormless punks wearing swastika-embroidered T-shirts. ‘Rock Against Racism was white people finally waking up to the fact that there’s racism here,’ says Pauline Black, lead singer of the two-tone ska revival band The Selecter, in a somewhat disdainful tone. As she speaks, a black and white image of a Black man being held in a chokehold by police appears on screen. This image seems at odds with the professed tone of the film, which indulges what Achiampong described to me over Zoom one afternoon last autumn as ‘white enlightenment’. 

rock against racism 1978
Rock Against Racism/Anti-Nazi League Carnival, Brockwell Park, London, 1978. Photograph: © John Sturrock 

It should come as no surprise that, 45 years after its founding, Rock Against Racism would be sensationalized by its documentary remains. White Riot remembers the movement as little more than a fashionable awakening to racism among white youth. At the De La Warr Pavilion, however, a joint presentation of archival material and Achiampong’s newly conceived works helps tether the memory of the movement to an ongoing history of resistance. 

Much of Achiampong’s practice, he explains to me, is influenced by the proverbial definition of the Twi word, sankofa: ‘It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.’ He continues: ‘My process of making starts with sitting down and listening to what people have to say.’ His new commissions – a flag titled What I Hear I Keep and an untitled sound piece (both 2020) – form part of ‘Relic Traveller’ (2017–ongoing), a multi-site series that critiques past, present and future architectures of colonialism via performances, sound and video works, flags and prose. ‘I’m trying to piece together other people’s memories and breathe a feeling of reality into them,’ Achiampong says. 

temporary hoarding 1977
Cover of Temporary Hoarding, issue no. 3, 1977. Courtesy: TH Collective 

Despite Rock Against Racism having largely dwindled by the time he was born in Bethnal Green, London, in 1984, Achiampong grew up as witness to the right-wing racialism that prompted ‘militant entertainment’ – a consumable, hyper-visible form of reactionary protest that balloons into a self-sustaining spectacle before expiring in a fit of exhaustion. ‘It was a culturally diverse area, but also one of the strongholds of the British National Party and the National Front,’ he recalls. ‘You could hear the click of their Doc Martens on the asphalt as they came through.’ 

 Entertainment as protest often attracts people – particularly young, impressionable people – to a movement. As demonstrated by Rock Against Racism, it is an extended act of persuasion, engendering solidarity and vigour within a group. ‘I listen out for words and meanings as I understand them,’ Achiampong tells me. To him, notions of ‘militancy’ should not be considered as wholly separate from those of ‘protest’. ‘They share the same space,’ he continues, ‘and therefore cannot be distinguished entirely.’ Achiampong’s new works create an opening in the annals of the history of anti-racist entertainment. His flag and sound piece – temporally incongruent, speculative delineations of historic and future resistance among Black people – could also be categorized as contemporary forms of protest or militant entertainment. ‘I think privileged people know where they stand when they see my work,’ Achiampong concedes. Whereas today’s ‘privileged’ person – a potential visitor to the De La Warr Pavilion show – may falsely assume themself to be a non-complicit witness, Achiampong’s works reiterate the matter of militant entertainment as an ongoing and prospective fact. 

victoria park carnival 1978
Poster for Victoria Park Carnival, London, 1978. Courtesy: RAR-RAP

‘The thing that appealed to me most’, Achiampong says as he changes his Zoom background to a proof of What I Hear I Keep, ‘was the opportunity to create a new flag.' The flag features a semi-circular cluster of 54 black stars – one for each African nation – enveloping a black circle against a wash of golden yellow on one half. On the other, a left-facing red arrow lined with green contains another black circle. The two spheres speak to geographic and generational separations. ‘Symbolically and visually speaking,’ Achiampong explains, ‘it’s a conversation between those born and raised on the African continent and members of the diaspora.’ What I Hear I Keep is Achiampong’s second reappropriation of the Pan-African flag. (The first was commissioned to fly over London’s Somerset House in 2017.) ‘They don’t even have to go inside!’ Achiampong says of visitors to the De La Warr Pavilion, before retracing his words: ‘That may sound like I don’t want anyone to go in, but I’m aware of the violence Black folk face inside these kinds of buildings: exhibition spaces, libraries, museums.’ Achiampong’s work casts the British cultural institution in the shadow of a flag under which no nation nor union exists. Its conspicuous nature allows it to be experienced by whomever may lay eyes on it, recalling the direct, public nature of actions formed under Rock Against Racism. 

Inside the pavilion, Achiampong’s looping sound piece can be heard. ‘It’s about the preservation of the heritage of highlife music as a social and political language, and its role in the emancipation of Ghana from colonial British rule,’ he tells me. The piece includes the voice of poet and playwright Ama Ata Aidoo, among others. ‘It’s like hearing my mum talk. Or my auntie. I was mostly raised by Ghanaian women,’ Achiampong continues. ‘Ama’s words are fire. She doesn’t sugarcoat anything.’ 

The samples of music and poetry stitched together by Achiampong become tools of pedagogy and care. His contributions to the reification of Rock Against Racism by way of intergenerational and inter-diasporic speculation help establish a framework through which present and future generations can come to engage with a movement of which they may only know rumours. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 217 with the headline 'The Once and Future Resistance'.

Larry Achiampong's work is featured in ‘Rock Against Racism: Militant Entertainment 1976–82’, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, UK (postponed to 1 October– 2 January 2022). His work will be included in ‘Untitled: Art on the Conditions of Our Time’, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, UK (8 May–11 July).

Main image: Cover of Temporary Hoarding (detail), issue no. 3, 1977. Courtesy: TH Collective 

Olamiju Fajemisin is a writer based in London, UK.

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