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Last Updated: Monday, 11 October, 2004, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Black British Style
Black British Style

The V&A in London has created an exhibition exploring the different images that African Britons present to the world through their dress, demeanour and street style.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)

KIRSTY WARK:
Bonnie, has the V & A identified something that can be described as black style?

BONNIE GREER:
Yes, definitely. I think what they have done is isolated elements of black style. I am an amateur in relation to this, so I am not an expert, but what I felt when I went to see the show and read the catalogue is that it identifies what I think are elements of black style. Improvisation, innovation. The sort of attachment to the look of a thing as a way of presenting the spirit, as a way of presenting self. The kind of taking together of materials and putting an individual touch to them, and then that lovely thing which is black style: presentation as kind of liberation and explanation of the self. And so the V & A has certainly done that. This is just a tiny bit of it. This is just a kind of a beginning. It isn't the whole story by any means, but it is a beginning. For me, it was a great successful show and I learned an enormous amount.

HARI KUNZRU:
Well, it's interesting they say it's a beginning, because to me it felt like a sketch, and it may be my preference in these kind of exhibitions is for some kind of strong argument. I felt I was being presented with bits and pieces, and one moment I am seeing a suit that I could have gone down to New Cross High Street and brought from the African tailor there and that's next to combat clothes that would have been worn by a Rasta in the 1970s. You never get a sense of how one got from one place to another. It's a hard story to tell. There are elements coming in from the Caribbean, from Africa, from the US. I think, you know, I wanted to like it more than I did, and I think my problem was that I didn't come out with understanding what was the black British element. What was the fusion, what was the moment when this stuff comes together to give a black British identity.

KIRSTY WARK:
It wasn't Ska for you, then?

HARI KUNZRU:
That was an interesting moment. That's the point where black and white people are sharing a common label. The Fred Perry shirt and the braces and the tonic suit.

BONNIE GREER:
Don't you think like the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, his Trilby. To me as an American, that's black British style, the profile.

HARI KUNZRU:
No. Thelonius Monk could have worn the same thing.

BONNIE GREER:
The way Linton wears it, what he does with it I think is quite peculiar I really do.

KIRSTY WARK:
Is it a complex or too simple story?

PD JAMES:
Perhaps a little too simple. I was surprised that the blackness was seen as just one entity when you have people coming from very different countries like the West Indies and all parts of Africa. It would be as odd as having an exhibition called "White African Style" and having clothes from people from New York, from Munich, from Stockholm and from Glasgow. That was a bit of a problem, but I did very much enjoy it. I loved the clothes. The more the clothes were African, the more I loved it. I liked the way in which they took our very dull men's suits - men's suits in this generation are awful when you compare how wonderful they looked in the 18th century. They sharpened them, made them say, "Look, this is me, this is how I am."

KIRSTY WARK:
The power of the Church seems to have been a very strong unifying feature?

BONNIE GREER:
Because church was the only time when you could express yourself, when you were free. It was the only type when you had all day to yourself, the seventh day, so people could wear clothes the way they wanted to. The other part of this, too, and there's just starting to be, a language to describe these clothes. A language to describe the style. A language to describe this presentation. It isn't in the Academy yet, and that is one of the problems right now.

KIRSTY WARK:
What do you think about PD James' point that actually somebody from Nigeria has little in common with someone from Somalia, Botswana, and that in fact it is not a woven story, it's too simple?

HARI KUNZRU:
What would be interesting to me would be to carry on this conversation about unpicking what the fusion has brought together, because that's what the show seemed to be trying to do. It was saying, "These are the elements in the melting pot, and what comes out." One very good thing was that they were including the church ladies' clothes. It could easily have turned into black as a euphemism for street style or youth or urban. There was a conscious attempt to show that this kind of improvisation and self-presentation is something going on throughout the generations.

BONNIE GREER:
Filled with black kids coming in with their notebooks and taking notes. They are thinking and talking. That's the point of the show.


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