London

View of “War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights,” 2021. Photo: Tim Whitby/Getty.

View of “War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights,” 2021. Photo: Tim Whitby/Getty.

“War Inna Babylon”

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Arts, London

The undead corpse of empire—wraithlike Babylon—breeds violence and contempt. I must implore those who were keen to term “War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights” an “urgent” or “timely” exhibition to question exactly why this moment best served to accommodate such a show. Is it because the multimedia exhibition, arguably the most extensive presentation of Black British community grassroots activism produced to date, culminated in the first institutional presentation of The Killing of Mark Duggan, 2019, an investigation by Goldsmiths, University of London–based human rights research agency Forensic Architecture? (The mixed-media installation dissects the discrepancies in the official report on the police killing of the twenty-nine-year-old Duggan, whose death catalyzed a week of rioting that consumed London and many other towns and cities in England ten summers ago.) Or is it because the show took place one year after the George Floyd protests, which, in the UK, prompted a marginally productive discourse on the imperial legacies in public sculpture? Most urgent and timely to my mind is the way this exhibition—empirical in both substance and execution—succeeded in identifying the paradigm of innocence, a condition historically denied to the Black British subject at the whim of the punitive state, as an absolute and inherent virtue.

Co-organized by community organizer Stafford Scott, coordinator of Tottenham Rights; his daughter, curator Kamara Scott; and her longtime friend and colleague, critic and curator Rianna Jade Parker, “War Inna Babylon” delineated the historiographic cartography of anti-Black subjugation in the more than seventy years since the mass arrival-on-invitation of West Indian workers in Britain. Across the institution’s main ground-floor exhibition space, archival documentary photographs, moving images, printed ephemera, and first-person written testimonies were installed within a labyrinthine structure conceived by exhibition designer Abi Wright. These items told of oscillating periods of oppression and subcultural resistance, but the accompanying case studies detailing the tenuous legal means by which this community has faced persecution—the reinvocation of the 1824 Vagrancy Act or the blatantly racialist “sus” law that permitted police officers to arrest individuals on the basis of suspicion until its symbolic repeal in August 1981—foretold the inevitable futures of such a carceral logic.

Stefan Kalmár’s description of the exhibition—the last production he oversaw during his five-year tenure as director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London—as a “long overdue celebration of black communities and their historic struggles against racism” was unfortunate in ignoring the futurity of grief. Though the exhibition foregrounded mostly era-specific media—in a purpose-built viewing room, one could watch the seminal films of late Bajan-born Black British cinema pioneer Menelik Shabazz, including Breaking Point: The ‘Sus’ Law and Black Youth, 1978—the ensemble testified that the condition of racialism imposed on the Black British subject has been omnitemporal. It will always be too soon to celebrate; rather, we should commemorate and honor.

In order to access the institute’s upper gallery, one first had to bypass two large, figurative, almost allegorical works by Kimathi Donkor—Under Fire: The Shooting of Cherry Groce and Madonna Metropolitan: The Death of Cynthia Jarrett both 2005—which depict separate incidents commonly remembered as the catalysts for the 1985 Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots, respectively. One then passed by Garnet Dore’s “Broken Lives,” 2016, a series of charcoal portraits on paper depicting people killed in police custody. At the top of the stairs was a curtained-off, darkened room in which five original video tributes by relatives of Tottenham locals killed at police hands—including Duggan’s mother—played in immediate succession. A small sign asked visitors to respect those in mourning. One struggled to fathom the cumulative weight of so much grief.

Across the corridor, the walls of which were clad with even more archival material, was the room presenting Forensic Architecture’s work. Though the report falters slightly in that it critiques the failings of the judicial system on that system’s own terms—as if proof of Duggan’s innocence is reason alone for why he should not have been killed—it identifies in detail the sinisterism and corruption of Britain as Babylon.