Photography review: Syd Shelton’s Rock Against Racism @ Impressions Gallery, Bradford

Paul Simonon -The-Clash -Victoria Park 30 April 1978

Paul Simonon. The Clash @ Victoria Park, 30 April 1978

In these post-Brexit times, when once again societal division appears to be rearing its ugly head, and racist and xenophobic hate crime is alarmingly on the rise, such an exhibition as this one at Bradford’s Impressions Gallery, which documents the ground-breaking musical and political movement Rock Against Racism (1976-81), could not be more timely or relevant.

The exhibition displays images by Yorkshire-born photographer, activist, and graphic designer Syd Shelton which record the marches, festivals, and music concerts that RAR staged under the slogan ‘Love Music, Hate Racism,’ in order to combat racial intolerance in the UK. Legendary performers featured include The Clash, Sham 69, Misty in Roots, Tom Robinson, and The Specials.

The exhibition is organised in such a way that the viewer is first confronted by images of the social context out of which the RAR movement was born, including National Front supporters and anti-Nazi protests (as well as other, less overtly political portraits). Then follow images from the concerts and gigs themselves, which display with striking immediacy the way in which artists and audiences of different race, background, and even musical style were brought together by a love of music combined with a defiance of prejudice.

Bengali youths lead a demonstration. Brick Lane, London 1978

Bengali youths lead a demonstration. Brick Lane, London 1978

Displayed alongside Shelton’s photographs are original vintage posters and fanzines from the era, some of which document the activities of the RAR movement in Yorkshire. It was in seeing many of these objects, which not only reflected the anti-racism stance of the group but also advocated other equality movements such as Rock Against Sexism and Gay Pride, that it became simultaneously clear how progressive and inclusive RAR supporters were across the country, and also how relevant their concerns (unfortunately) remain.

What is particularly special about this exhibition is the personal and local nature of many of its features. Seeing the hand- and type-written newsletters and personal photographs of people and their friends alongside professional images of internationally successful musicians really brought home the scope of the RAR movement. It is therefore very fitting that the exhibition begins and ends with contributions from the local community: opening with people’s own memories of RAR events and ending with visitors’ reactions to the exhibition, writing down their responses to open questions on topics such as ideas of tolerance and social change (as well as favourite musicians). Perhaps the most encouraging message was also the simplest. In the painstakingly large letters of a child’s handwriting, was the brief message: ‘Be kind.’

As we may currently be discovering, it is all too easy to take for granted just how far British society has come over the past few decades. While the Impressions Gallery’s exhibition is an opportunity to celebrate this, and to celebrate the diversity of our community, it is also a chance to reflect and, in doing so, to hopefully ensure that we do not lose sight of the ways in which we are all united.

The exhibition runs until September 3rd at Impressions Gallery, Bradford. The gallery has an event, Feed Your Mind, which will provide an informal insight into the exhibition. The event will be led by Paul Furness, key figure in the Leeds Rock Against Racism group and founder of Leeds RAR club.