Eulogy

Photographs, personal documentation, books and other ephemera from the archive © 2019 David Lindsay.

If you don’t find the time to document your own history, it is likely to be forgotten – or worse still, misrepresented’ (Ralston ‘Rex’ Milton Nettleford).[1]

The importance of documentation in all its forms is central to Eulogy, an exhibition that commemorates the lives of first generation Jamaicans in Leeds. Invited by the Government to help reconstruct the UK after World War II, members of the Windrush generation travelled thousands of miles across the ocean to build new lives as British citizens.[2]

Curated by Susan Pitter, Eulogy is part of a wider project that seeks to preserve the histories and life stories of Jamaicans in Leeds for future generations, working closely with the local community. Eulogy events include workshops on tracing African-Caribbean family history and life story writing, plus an evening of performance inspired by Jamaican funeral and remembrance rituals. A book, website and archive will also form part of the project’s legacy.

An image gallery depicting seventy-six first generation Jamaican men and women is displayed at the entrance to the exhibition, an orderly array of passport-style photographs. The words of Roland Barthes spring to mind, who suggests that ‘every photograph is a certificate of presence.’[3] For members of diasporic communities who experience a lack of representation (and misrepresentation) in the countries they call home, the notion of the photographic image as proof of existence takes on additional meanings, and self-documentation in turn becomes vitally important. “We were here. We are here”, the portraits seem to say out loud.

Next to these photographs, applied directly to the wall, is a blow-up of a Jamaican passport declaration; [4] a crucial form of documentation. We are reminded that at the time, Jamaica was still under British colonial rule. The complex, intertwined histories of Britain and Jamaica are touched upon, but are not the main focus of the show. Instead, personal images, stories and artefacts take centre stage.

Studio portrait of Elmus Franklin Dennis, circa early 1960s, courtesy of Jamaica Society Leeds.

A museological approach to presentation is taken. Vitrines hold personal items, service medals, worker’s uniforms, certificates and commendations. Books, photographs, documents and other ephemera complete the collection of artefacts, giving us an insight into the lives of this particular community and wider society at the time. Atop a mid-century radiogram sit small framed family photos. In one, a group of small children line up on the sofa with their parents, dressed in Sunday best. In another, five young bridesmaids in pale dresses with full-circle skirts pose in height order outside a church; all looking in different directions. Reggae plays softly in the background, hazy memories of rainy Sunday afternoons.

Large-scale portraits of the first generation are presented on the main gallery wall. A mix of formal and informal photographs, in sepia, black and white and tinted tones, they were created to be shared with family and friends, many of them overseas.[5] Alongside their images are newly-commissioned family legacy portraits of children and grandchildren by Paul Floyd Blake, accompanied by personal oral histories and funeral programmes containing photographs, eulogies, hymns and poems of remembrance.

Portrait of Delores Francis circa 1950, Fraser’s Photo Studio, Kingston Jamaica, courtesy of Jamaica Society Leeds.

Tina M. Campt notes that making and sharing family images was vital for communities of the African-Caribbean diaspora in creating ‘a sense of self, community and belonging’ when forging new lives and identities abroad.[6] This was especially important as newcomers were often faced with a reality that did not match their expectations of Britain, both environmentally – from the idyllic image of the village cricket green on a balmy summer’s day to a cold, grey, wet land of smoking chimneys – and socially. Eulogy documents the voices of those who fought against discrimination – and outright racism – in the struggle to achieve equality. These are critical things to remember, especially in light of the ongoing Windrush scandal and the current government’s ‘hostile environment’ for immigration.

Eulogy locates humans at its centre, with individual stories contributing to wider narratives about home, community and belonging; what they mean and where they are found. These hidden histories, discovered in drawers and underneath beds, uncovered in attics, basements and sheds, now have a new life in the outside world. An important legacy of this project is creating a new ‘people’s history’, an archive for future generations. And, if ‘history is written by those with pens’,[7] as Nettleford says, it’s imperative to keep on writing.

Eulogy is on show at Leeds Central Library, The Headrow, Leeds, from 2 August – 8 September 2019.

For more information on the Eulogy programme of events and workshops, please visit https://www.jamaicasocietyleeds.co.uk/

Joanna Byrne is a filmmaker, creative educator and writer based in Leeds.

[1] Professor the Hon. Ralston ‘Rex’ Milton Nettleford OM, FIJ, OCC (1933-2010) (Cited in Eulogy exhibition explanatory wall text).

[2] Named after the HMS Windrush, the first ship to set sail bringing Jamaican emigrants to Britain in 1948.

[3] Roland Barthes, 1993. Camera Lucida, p.87.

[4] The declaration is dated 1957, and Jamaica did not gain independence until five years later. Under British law at the time, people belonging to Commonwealth countries were classed as British subjects, and were able to freely live and work in the UK.

[5] Many of the studio portraits were produced by Gerald Donne Photography in Chapeltown (Eulogy exhibition  notes).

[6] Tina M. Campt. 2012. Image Matters: Archive, Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe. London: Duke University Press, p.14.

[7] The Exploding Cinema, 1999. https://www.explodingcinema.org/pens.html

Published 07.08.2019 by Holly Grange in Reviews

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