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War Inna Babylon


London, 2021

Review by Michael McMillan


Ten years on from the UK-wide uprisings ignited by the police killing of Mark Duggan, the exhibition War Inna Babylon: The Community Struggle for Truths and Rights at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) sheds a light on the history of collective action, resistance and activism that Black communities across the UK have undertaken in response to social injustice and institutional racism.

A starting point is the comment made in 1982 by Kenneth Newman, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, that ‘In the Jamaicans, you have a people who are constitutionally disorderly […] it’s simply in their make-up, they’re constitutionally disposed to be anti-authority.’ Newman’s point is not to highlight the oppressive constitution that Jamaicans resisted in the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865 or modern racist immigration legislation in the UK, but rather to tap into a colonial fantasy in the British psyche that ‘disorderly’ Black bodies must be policed, as described in Joseph A. Hunte’s 1960s book Nigger Hunting in England? At the ICA, a life-size 1960s photo by Howard Grey of a dapperly dressed Caribbean man standing on a pavement with a clenched fist looking askance, as if waiting for something to happen, sets the tone of the exhibition as an experience.

The title War Inna Babylon comes from Max Romeo’s 1976 classic reggae tune, in which Babylon is a biblical reference used by Rastas for the Western capitalist system and the state. The exhibition is co-curated by Kamara Scott, Rianna Jade Parker and Tottenham Rights co-founder Stafford Scott, who was a community activist in the Broadwater Farm Estate, Tottenham. Like Railton Road in Brixton and All Saints Road in Notting Hill, Broadwater Farm has been for the Black community a ‘frontline’ site of racial conflict triggered by police violence, and was designated by Police Commissioner Newman as a ‘symbolic location’ – for which read, ‘no-go area’.

White and black text panels, on black and red backgrounds, provide a social context includes themes such as the Black Parents Movement’s supplementary schools (Saturday Schools), the ‘sus’ laws, the Metropolitan Police’s much criticised Gang Matrix, and legal developments driven by Black justice campaigns, such as the freeing of the Tottenham Three: Mark Braithwaite, Winston Silcott and Engin Raghip, who were accused of killing PC Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm uprisings of 1985. Glass topped vitrines display archive copies of cultural activist journals like Race Today and Grassroots, and a triptych of portraits feature Black female activists Beverley Bryan, Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Olive Morris. Audio-visual displays with tributes from families victimised by police violence are given visual power by Kimathi Donkor’s two paintings, Madonna Metropolitan: The Death of Cynthia Jarrett and Under Fire: The Shooting of Cherry Groce (2005).

The largest nationwide uprisings since the 1980s were triggered by the police killing of Mark Duggan on 4 August 2011, and the report into his death is forensically deconstructed in a series of detailed multicoloured diagrams by the Turner Prize-nominated Forensic Architecture.

War Inna Babylon provides invaluable archive documentation of Black British community activism and resistance towards ongoing racist police violence; it needs to be seen beyond the ICA in spaces where this intergenerational lived experience takes place.

Photo courtesy of Howard Grey