Arts Review: Rock Against Racism

Street Level Photoworks, 11th Feb – 9th April  

In political and societal times of turbulence, uncertainty, and hate, history shows that movements of resistance will always rise to counter extremism. Political parties can oppose fascism in parliament, but on the streets it is left to activists, artists, and subcultures to rally the masses. Inspirational through their creativity and encouraging thanks to safety in numbers, these groups have always emerged to fight oppression.

Street Level’s Rock Against Racism exhibition is mostly presented without comment – monochrome photographs document life on the streets and in concert venues during the late 70s. Syd Shelton was RAR’s official photographer, and it’s his images that form the bulk of the gallery. Shots from the Anti National Front Demonstration in Lewisham are side by side with The Clash mid-concert. Suave skinheads opposing racism are profiled along with black reggae artists who were embraced by the punk scene at the time.

Everything Shelton pointed his lens at seems to exude love. The mosh pits and backstage candids celebrate the energy of a subculture at the peak of its popularity, and it’s impossible to view them separately from the shots of marches with placards and fists raised in solidarity. It’s a juxtaposition of work and play, how coming together is powerful both as resistance and as community building.

Some of Shelton’s original negatives are on display too, along with colourful zines and protest logos. Under the protection of glass and presented to the public by a curator, this punk resistance has become a historical artefact, deliberately organised and removed from its anarchic sense of danger. A weaponised genre built on the backs of misfits and wayward teens has seemingly run its course, as the RAR exhibition is timely in its presentation, with no modern examples to point to. The rise of the alt-right and Donald Trump has been met with little artistic opposition from the world of rock – where once punk spat and raised its middle finger, contemporary rock is having an identity crisis, fixated on style, dominated by trends, and too insular to fight the power.

Shelton’s documentation runs concurrent with the rise and fall of the National Front. Punk’s seething rage was too much for fascism in the late 70s. This exhibition celebrates not only the defeat of hate, but the love involved in doing it.

[Scott Wilson – @scottaawilson]

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