Somerset House and Hayward Gallery – Review
by Pat Levy
When London gets too rainy the best place to be is indoors and there are two places in particular that are worth stepping inside.
Somerset House has been in its Thames-side location for a very long time. Formerly a Tudor palace, it was home to assorted consorts to the monarch, followed by a spell as a laboratory, government offices and then the registry of births deaths and marriages. In this century it has gradually become a place where cultural events of distinction take place.
In summer, Somerset House’s courtyard becomes a concert venue and open air cinema while smaller events occupy the myriad of rooms around it. This summer, two exhibitions occupying space in a number of these rooms are linked. Get up, Stand up Now charts the progress of Black artists of the Windrush generation over the last half century. Photographs, installations, film clips and music bring to life the work of artists and their struggle against the mainstream art world which largely chose to ignore them. There’s a fascinating photograph of Michael X with John and Yoko exchanging their recently cropped hair for a pair of Muhammed Ali’s boxing shorts. Another photo shows Michael X looking pretty cool on Paddington Station, accompanied by his entourage in that disciplined walking-style that Malcolm X made a hallmark of black consciousness in Harlem.
The work of Horace Ové, the first black British person to direct a feature film (Pressure, in 1976), epitomises the exhibition’s celebration of Black creativity in Britain and beyond. A film of his that can be viewed as part of the exhibition tells a hilarious story of a West Indian cricket team from Brixton playing a white Home Counties team and the racial stereotypes that follow. The curator of Get Up, Stand Up Now is the son of Horace Ové.
In the Terrace Rooms of the south wing a free exhibition Kaleidoscope charts the experiences of immigrants to Britain, many of them facing white bigotry. One shocking clip from a 1960s TV documentary shows middle-aged white men in suits calmly and logically explaining to the camera why a black family, that recently moved into their neighbourhood should leave.
British identity entails multiple perspectives, memories and ethnicities and the photographers whose work constitute Kaleidoscope embody this in their backgrounds, hailing from the Caribbean, Italy, Hong Kong, South Asia, Canada, Argentina and Africa.
In the Hayward Gallery exhibition, Kiss my Genders the photographs, installations, sculpture and paintings look at gender identities outside the binary norm. In the photographs the subjects dressed in their true identities stare boldly at the camera, not asking for acceptance or assimilation but giving the observer a póg mo thóin. In Luciano Castelli’s 1974 self-portraits, they dress in provocative women’s evening wear, covered in gold leaf. In one of Catherine Opie’s photographs, a portrait of a gay couple gently dislocates the traditional family portrait. By turns mischievous, solemn, occasionally boring and a little sad, the exhibition challenges our comfortable sense that because it seems acceptabl to be LGBT we can all forget about it.
Get Up, Stand up Now is on until 15 September. Admission £12.50, concessions £9.50. Mon, Tue, Sat & Sun 10.00-18.00, Wed – Fri 11.00-20.00
Kaleidoscope is on until 8 September. Admission free. Mon, Tue, Sat & Sun 10.00-18.00, Wed – Fri 11.00-20.00
Kiss my Genders is on until 8 September. Admission £15, concessions 12.50 Daily except Tuesdays 11.00-19.00.