A member of the loose-knit British Black arts movement of the 1980s, Ingrid Pollard continues to investigate themes of race and British identity in her multidisciplinary social practice. The Guyana-born artist was one of four contenders for the recently awarded Turner Prize, with work on display at Tate Liverpool through March 19; Pollard’s installation is a powerful exploration of race in Britain through its material, largely pub, culture. Her 2019 project Seventeen of Sixty Eight comprises photographs and prints of pub signs and found paraphernalia—a tavern banner, a pub token, a figurine—gathered over some 30 years of research around Britain, most of which bear the image or name of the “Black Boy.” Pollard positions these objects so as to engage the visitor physically in the act of looking and finding links between them: some photographs are placed above eye level, in others the pub sign is obscured; white paper works embossed with pub signage are only discernible from close up; and a looped video of a dancing blackface marionette lurks inside a closed cupboard. One has to peer at the small print on the wall to read the opening lines of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which describe the protagonist as batting at a “head of a Moor” that swings from the rafters.
In a second room, three kinetic sculptures perform repetitive jerky movements with raucous groaning and clanking, part of the installation Bow Down and Very Low 123 (2021). Constructed from items suggestive of violence like saws, a baseball bat, and rope, these works collapse and rise again or swivel around, presenting an unsettling counterpoint to lenticular images on the wall of a young Black girl curtsying, taken from a 1944 colonial propaganda film.
Here, Pollard discusses the complexities of the “Black Boy” project and the connecting threads in her works.
WITH THE BLACK BOY project, I’m looking at pub signs and what they mean, other than being a political explanation of racism in Britain. If you just talk about it in those terms, that shuts down any other meaning. I’d like it to be much more complex.
All the signs are different. There’s always a story attached to them. Sometimes locals will say it’s named after a real person, like an enslaved boy saved by a local barman. Or they’ll say it’s named for someone who turns out to have lived 100 years after the pub was named. The story is never the fundamental reason why these places are called the Black Boy.
Sometimes the Black Boy sign might be just a historical symbol referring to colonial trade, indicating that you could get rum, sugar, and tobacco at this establishment, as the majority of the working population 500 years ago would have been illiterate. Then there’s a whole connection with King Charles II; the king was said to be swarthy, so the Black Boy sign was a way for the pub to indicate an allegiance to him. There have been African figures in signs around the United Kingdom for hundreds of years. The imperialist nations of Europe all went to the so-called New World for gain. It’s about “we’re here (in the UK) because you were there.”
Representations of the figure have changed with the times. One might have a modern flavor with the figure wearing a T-shirt and flat-top haircut, while another depicts a 17th-century bejeweled enslaved person to show the wealth of the slave owner. Within those representations, the historical aspects of Britishness, ownership, and money, and also contemporary life, are in there, all mixed up.
A lot of the work I do is meant to open up the idea of what we think England looks like. In the display there’s a photo of green, rolling hills, which is a romantic idyll, but it’s a managed, man-made environment. The landscapes, the African figure, the idea of Britishness, they’re all constructions when it comes down to it.
I still revisit the signs because it’s become compulsive, but it’s different now. Pub owners have become more aware. If they get frightened by media interest, then they’ll just change the sign. When you do that you wipe out 500 years of history of that sign and its connection to the local community. There was a media campaign to remove one that had a Black baby in the bath and a white woman trying to scrub it clean. The pub owner agreed to give it to a local museum, but then it was stolen.
There’s a lot of discussion about whether to save the signs. Many Black people hate them and want them destroyed because it’s heartbreaking to see those images. They don’t want their kids to see them. But if you just get rid of them, people will start to deny they ever existed. That’s what I’m afraid of.
The exhibition has lots of types of representations, whether a racist caricature in a painting or a beautiful profile of an African, a brooch, a coin, or a text. It’s not a room full of just signs.
I would like the audience to be physically involved. When you first see the embossed prints, they’re just white bits of paper on the wall; you have to stand in a particular position so that the light reflects right. You also have to get close to read the Virginia Woolf text, the same with the coin. It’s the idea of visibility. These things are in plain sight. All these ideas about race are there in the signs, but people appear not to notice them.
Then there’s the video inside the cupboard. You actually have to choose to open the scary little box. That’s a puppet I videoed from the collection of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Detroit. The video just turns the screw a bit more; there’s no way you cannot interpret it as a racist caricature. That one never stops being shocking to me. The video connects to the tradition of blackface minstrels and the industrial scale of slavery, especially in America. It’s a way of drawing people back to the underlying racism in all those figures, even though they might be beautiful paintings.
In the second room, Bow Down and Very Low 123 is about the gesture of that little girl, that very awkward curtsy she does and the repetition of the movement; she’s obviously been practicing it. The images are from a 1944 film made by the Colonial Film Unit, which went to West Africa and the Caribbean to recruit people to work in England. The girl was voted May Queen in a real competition, but when I saw the film I thought, I bet she had a hard time in 1944. So there was a disconnect.
The kinetic sculptures are about transferring something from the flat surface of a film to the photograph to something that’s moving and has a back and a front and different dimensions. It’s trying to understand sculpture, because it’s just so far from photography and film, and how those different mediums connect to each other. The effect of the lenticular photographs is that the girl bows to you as you walk across the room. There’s so much power imbalance in the gesture, who bows to whom and how deep it is.
Some people are quite scared of those sculptures. There’s a sense of danger to them. The baseball bat has glass embedded in it; it’s been used to smash a car window or something. So there is an implied violence, but it’s also a tool for a game of sport.
With the demonstration banners, there’s a sense of joy and power of bodies being together, but there are other pieces in the series where police are manhandling people or there’s kettling going on. Then there are the four gridded photographs of the body, which draw links to the early use of photography in medicine, science, and police investigations as a state tool to classify people. They’re accompanied by three texts: The first refers to ways people feel forced to hide their same-gender partner, describing them in public as their secretary or researcher; the second is a text by sexologist Havelock Ellis talking about homosexuals as “inverts”; and the third cites different derogatory names for a lesbian. It’s about categorization, judgment, and name calling, that kind of low-level abuse. That room is about the body in peril.