Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred

Art Free
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(1user review)
 (Kibbo Kift: Surcoat (Herald), 1920-1931. © Kibbo Kift Foundation/Museum of London )
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Kibbo Kift: Surcoat (Herald), 1920-1931. © Kibbo Kift Foundation/Museum of London
 (Kibbo Kift Kindred members at camp, 1928. Courtesy of Judge Smith, Kibbo Kift Foundation. © Kibbo Kift Foundation)
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Kibbo Kift Kindred members at camp, 1928. Courtesy of Judge Smith, Kibbo Kift Foundation. © Kibbo Kift Foundation
 (Kibbo Kift Kindred, men and boys on camp parade with totems, 1925. Image courtesy of Kibbo Kift Foundation. © Kibbo Kift Foundation)
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Kibbo Kift Kindred, men and boys on camp parade with totems, 1925. Image courtesy of Kibbo Kift Foundation. © Kibbo Kift Foundation
 (Kibbo Kift: Kinlog, 1920-1931. © Kibbo Kift Foundation/Museum of London)
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Kibbo Kift: Kinlog, 1920-1931. © Kibbo Kift Foundation/Museum of London
 (John Hargrave (White Fox) as Spirit Chief, 1928. Image courtesy of Kibbo Kift Foundation. © Kibbo Kift Foundation)
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John Hargrave (White Fox) as Spirit Chief, 1928. Image courtesy of Kibbo Kift Foundation. © Kibbo Kift Foundation
 (Kibbo Kift: Skaldic staff (Head), 1920-1931. © Kibbo Kift Foundation/Museum of London)
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Kibbo Kift: Skaldic staff (Head), 1920-1931. © Kibbo Kift Foundation/Museum of London
 (Kibbo Kift: Transport, 1920-1931. © Kibbo Kift Foundation/Museum of London)
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Kibbo Kift: Transport, 1920-1931. © Kibbo Kift Foundation/Museum of London
 (Kibbo Kift Educational Exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery (21 April-25May1927) Exhibition Poster. Courtesy the Whitechapel Gallery Archive)
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Kibbo Kift Educational Exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery (21 April-25May1927) Exhibition Poster. Courtesy the Whitechapel Gallery Archive

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. 

By: Matt Breen

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Staff Writertastemaker

Loved this show. Really interesting and bizarre artefacts from what seems like a very strange little collective.

Beautiful textiles on display, although it’s a tiny room and feels quite museum-y I left wanting to know more about the group and would love to see a larger exhibit carrying more of the items.

The staffs were super cool!