Not all black

and white

Race is still a very hot potato In : Through The Lens Darkly. four 1 African and Asian photographers train their viewfinders on an old debate. Carl llonore reports.

It‘s easy for Michael Jackson to say that it doesn‘t matter if you’re black or white. Besides a plastic surgeon. he has burly bodyguards and scads of influential white friends. For most coloured people in Britain. though. it does matter. most of the time. Look at the racist graffiti on inner—city walls. Look at Norman Tebbitt‘s cricket test. Look at the art British blacks and Asians produce.

Built around the work of four photographers from African and Asian communities in Britain. this exhibition is a headfirst plunge into a long—running debate. Some of the images are lifted wholesale from the media or popular memory: most are recast and given afresh spin. The object is to question. to shine light on the racial preconceptions and complacencies that linger in the corners of the most politically correct mind.

Richard llylton's The Family is a nifty look at how racial exclusion retreats on one front while digging—in on another. Single photographs ofa young mulatto boy are mounted on black backgrounds. Taken from the kind ofalbum that every family keeps. the pictures are so banal. amateur and ill-composed that they are disarming. Cuddling the dog or shivering on the beach. the boy manifestly belongs to a family like any other in Britain. Beneath each cosy snapshot. however. there is a grim punchline: quotes from police chiefs. linoch Powell and official studies on immigration. The words are not much older than the boy. but they might well have been plucked from a late 19th century social Darwinist polemic.

Across the room. the photgraphs of Nudrat Aliza are an uncluttered depiction of Asian life in Britain. No gimmicks and little posing. Just straightforward photography. In a roomful of ambiguous hues and dour black and whites. her work is a splash of jubilant colour. Steering away from the gloomy housing estates and concrete playgrounds that mar urban life. she homes in on Asians themselves: most are swathed in brightly-coloured traditional clothing. At a cursory glance. her contribution looks like a cocoon. a twee homage to an Asian community living in a utopian vacuum. But a closer look uncovers something more ambivalent. even unsettling.

Amidst the smiling brown faces and jam-packed shelves ofa corner shop in Halifax. there is the

blonde ponytail of a young white girl. She blends


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in and she doesn't blend in. There is also a black and white shot of a mother clutching a picture of the son who died in a racist attack. What emerges is the portrait of a robust community trying to find a patch ofsolid land in a shifting swamp. Perhaps the most beguiling photograph is Number 10. A young Asian girl with an inscrutable face leans against a large door crowned with the number ll)‘. ls she coming or going? Is she even welcome? Does she care‘.’

Valerie Brown probes the black-white nexus by meeting head-on the coyness with which most people confront miscegenation. ller photographs contain a white man and black woman tangled up. both naked. The only hands that are visible are the manicured paws of the man. hinting at some imbalance or one-way appropriation. In one piece. the man seems to be guiding the black woman towards his groin as her face turns to one side. ls she repelled or is she revelling'.’ (‘an a cross-racial relationship ever be acted out on a level playing field?



From VinciantStokes's Black Portraits

That the exhibition carries an Afro-Asian tag does not mean that the artists beat just one drum. The questions posed reach well beyond the obvious confines. Racial imagery is simply a means to a larger end. By placing faces that are racially nondescript (some even have blue eyes) beneath the phrase Being Black. Richard Hylton pushes notions of discrimination and exclusion outside the realm ofcolour: you don't have to be black to be underfoot. Similarly. Valerie Brown‘s work coughs up nagging questions about equalin in any heterosexual encounter.

In a wordy preamble. the curator quite rightly avoids epithets like ‘ground-breaking‘ and ‘new‘. Most of the images merely rework thoughts and visions already expressed elsewhere. There is nothing pungently original or ingenious about any of the work: these are just four voices among many. All the same. the sum of their cries deserves attention.

Through the Lens Darkly: Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sa128 Mar.