Kibbo Kift is a phrase from an archaic Cheshire dialect. Meaning ‘to show great strength’, it was the name given to an organisation active in 1920s and ’30s Britain. The Kibbo Kift Kindred combined the anti-industrialist sentiments of the nineteenth-century Luddites and the gung-ho ethos of the Scouts, and anticipated the spiritualism of hippy counterculture by three decades. The Whitechapel Gallery gave the group its first exposure in a 1929 exhibition, and this retrospective brings together a small collection of images and artefacts associated with the movement.
Objects on display include garish tabards and banners, painted designs for magic symbols, hand-carved staffs and totems, pamphlets and linocuts, and audio recordings of songs (featuring lots of hey-hoing). But it’s Angus McBean’s photographs of the Kindred that give the show its heart, because here we get to see everything and everyone in situ. His pictures of young men in shaman-like capes, gathered around teepees in the British countryside, are wryly affectionate.
And a little sad, too: it’s hard to look at all this staff-waving and wood-whittling and not find it all rather daft and misplaced. Certainly, the iconographic appropriation of what were still being called Red Indians is hard to swallow. But a historical perspective gives the group its due: this was, after all, a brazenly utopian movement birthed in the aftermath of a gruesome world war that defined the modern age. In a few years’ time, we’ll be entering our own ’20s; maybe we’ll be in need of a twenty-first-century equivalent.