BY Rianna Jade Parker in Reviews | 22 OCT 18
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Issue 199

Revisiting Neil Kenlock: The British Black Panthers' Official Photographer

An exhibition at the Black Cultural Archives, London, underlines the lasting importance of the self-taught photographer's work

BY Rianna Jade Parker in Reviews | 22 OCT 18

On a visit to London in 1974, the recently freed African American activist, Angela Davis, met with members of grassroot initiatives, including the British Black Panthers, thanking them for their support during her time in jail. Hundreds of people gathered outside the US embassy to protest the treatment of Black Americans and to support the global struggle for emancipation. High unemployment, the rise of far-right groups such as the National Front, inadequate housing, social exclusion, ‘sus’ laws (a precursor to ‘stop and search’) and state violence in the UK prompted calls for the disenfranchised group to radically mobilize themselves.

From 1968 until 1973, the British Black Panther movement operated in Brixton, South London, a Black neighbourhood that was the site of numerous race riots and where many of the Windrush generation first settled. (After the passing of the British Nationality Act of 1948, until 1970, half a million people migrated from the Caribbean to Britain, many of them on the ship the Empire Windrush.) Neil Kenlock – who arrived with his family in London in 1963 as a child from Jamaica – quickly became the Black Panther Party’s official photographer. Inspired by the images produced by his contemporary David Bailey, Kenlock, who was self-taught, set out to capture his community in a similar light with dignity and honour.

Neil Kenlock, Keep Britain White - Barbara Grey, 1974. Courtesy: the artist

This autumn, the Black Cultural Archives in London hosted the institution’s first photography exhibition: ‘Expectations: The Untold Story of Black British Community Leaders in the 60s and 70s’. Twenty-five framed, mostly black and white photographs are hung throughout the building, in the foyer, cafe, bookshop and entrance. The images detail the strength, charisma and determination of these self-appointed freedom fighters, with moods ranging from uncensored joy to a quiet nobility. The subjects include the late civil rights campaigner Darcus Howe; Arthur Stanley Wint MBE, the first Jamaican Olympic gold medallist; George Berry, the first Black British publican and licensee; and the women’s and housing rights activist, Olive Morris, who moved to the UK from Jamaica when she was nine and died at the age of 27 from lymphoma in 1979.

Kenlock’s personal selection of mostly unpublished photographs reflect cross-generational pride and determination. In one, Olive Morris and the activist Elizabeth Obi share a wicker chair in reference to Blair Stapp’s famous portrait of Huey Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panthers in the US. They stare at the camera; despite their soft smiles they seem serious and assured. Kenlock recalls Morris instigating the party’s first demonstration barefooted and then marching for hours through Brixton. Morris was also central to the squatters’ campaign of the 1970s and was a founding member of several feminist activist groups, including the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

Neil Kenlock, Olive Morris and Elizabeth Obi, 1973. Courtesy: the artist

Frequent police raids of Mangrove – a Black-owned restaurant in West London that was popular with intellectuals, artists and musicians such as Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix and Diana Ross – led to a public demonstration in the late summer of 1970. Seven hundred Metropolitan police officers and a special branch called ‘Black Power Desk’ stalked the rally. It led to the high-profile, 55-day trial of activists who became known as the ‘Mangrove Nine’. They were finally acquitted and forced the first judicial acknowledgment that there was ‘evidence of racial hatred’ in the Metropolitan police. Kenlock memorialized the trial with detailed and intimate photographs of otherwise overlooked communities. 

Earlier this year, a national debate around immigration was sparked when the consequences of the ‘hostile environment policy’ implemented by the Prime Minister Theresa May in 2010 when she was Home Secretary became a political scandal. Numerous Caribbean citizens who emigrated to the UK as children have been wrongly detained, deported or threatened with deportation and denied legal rights. This exhibition is both a necessary and timely reminder of the work that needs to be done. It makes clear that the stakes were high for the Black British community half a century ago but the expectations for the new generation to stand firm in the UK are even higher.

The Neil Kenlock Archive,‘Expectations’ runs at Black Cultural Archives, London, until 24 October 2018.

Main image: Neil Kenlock, Black Panther Flag Bearer ‘Mackie Mackie’ (detail), 1969. Courtesy: the artist

Rianna Jade Parker is a writer, curator and researcher. She is a founding member of the interdisciplinary collective Thick/er Black Lines and a contributing editor of frieze. Her book A Brief History of Black British Art is forthcoming from Tate Publishing. She lives in London, UK.