During a period when the British government still had an official ‘Colonial Office’, the SS Windrush reached London’s waters, bringing with it almost 500 West Indian passengers who, for the most part, were to settle permanently in the capital.
The vessel’s arrival on 2 June 1948 marked the beginning of a period of considerable immigration from Commonwealth countries, encouraged by parliament. Over the course of the next two decades, the West Indian diaspora in the UK swelled. However, despite the settlers’ status as British citizens, many reacted to their arrival with prejudice, and racism thrived. In response to this, as Historian Marc Matera puts it, London “became the locus of black resistance to racism and empire”.
It was in this landscape of disruption and discrimination that Raphael Arthur (1935-2009) began photographing west London’s black beauty pageants which emerged during the 60s and 70s, a project spanning three decades and which goes on display in London next month.
Born on the Caribbean island of Grenada, Albert was among those who moved to London in the 50s. He enrolled in college to study photography, becoming a freelance photographer for black British publications such as West Indian World. “In an age when it was taken for granted that in coming to Britain from the Caribbean, you would take a job on London Transport, Raphael enrolled at college instead,” explained an obituary by his friend, Julianne Henry.
Albert captured an expanse of dance, music and community events which eschewed exclusionary beauty standards, rejecting whitewashed media and instead celebrating the contemporary ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement.
By showcasing black femininity in its many guises, his photographs mark the way in which race and gender norms were being contested during the period. The result is a vibrant oeuvre that put black women firmly centre stage at a time when they were culturally invisible, and lacking in number due to the gender disparity among those arriving from the West Indies. It is ironic, then, that many of Albert’s subjects to this day evade identification, and are the focus of a project trying to name the photographed beauty queens.
Albert became an icon in the world of pageantry for his images, eventually going on to have an instrumental role in organising some of his own; in 1974 ‘Miss West Indies in Great Britain’ was established by the photographer.
The 'Miss Black and Beautiful' exhibition will run from July 8th – September 24th at Rivington Palace, admission is free
Follow Thea Bichard on Twitter here @thea_x