David McAlmont on 'The Outside Edge' exhibition
Pop singer David McAlmont revisits his youth in a show on black gay Londoners
I emerge from Canary Wharf station, clutching my current reading material, Alan Hollingsworth’s ‘The Line Of Beauty’. The book, all about being young and gay in Thatcher’s London, seems appropriate to the location – Canada Square reeks of 1980s aspirational artifice – and to my destination, an exhibition called 'Outside Edge' at the Museum in Docklands. The show contains an incredible visual history of London’s black lesbian and gay community over the past 30 years that will resonate powerfully with anyone who lived through the period.
It’s a small exhibition, but there’s a wealth of material here, ranging from political pamphlets from the 1970s through to club, theatre and music flyers, CD and record covers and posters. It’s incredible to see exhibits that are part of my own history being displayed as significant historical objects.
Of particular interest to me are the Let’s Rap pamphlets from the 1980s, which bring back memories of long, intense meetings at London Lighthouse [1980s HIV Centre, now called Lighthouse West London]. Let’s Rap, a black gay discussion group for men, was the only forum available to address the issues around black sexuality at the time and was a lifeline for me.
Theatre flyers on display at Outside Edge (© Museum of London)
For myself, as for so many gay Londoners, the 1980s were a challenging time. It was the period of Section 28 [the legislation that prohibited schools from teaching that homosexuality was acceptable], and it was a difficult time to be black in the capital too, with rioting in predominantly black areas of London such as Broadwater Farm and Brixton. But it was also the time in which many of us were exploring our musical, political and sexual identities.The paradoxes are summed up, for me, in the part of this exhibition featuring a copy of the memorable 1991 piece in black newspaper The Voice, written by the footballer Justin Fashanu, where he outs himself as gay for the first time. The article is a stark reminder of the intolerance of that era.
‘This exhibition is for the black LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community who may not be aware of all that has happened in the community over the last thirty years,’ says Ajamu Campbell, who has curated the exhibition with his partner Topher. Both of them are founders of the rukus! Federation, which supports and exhibits new work by black LGBT artists as well as archive material relating to the community. ‘It is also for the heritage sector that has totally ignored our existence; the black community who sidestep the black gay experience and the wider gay community because they have a very narrow definition of what heritage is,’ says Ajamu. ‘It’s for me too because part of this is me learning about my own heritage.
‘We are the first black generation to speak about sexuality,’ Ajamu adds. ‘There is a narrow definition of what black is and once you criss-cross that with sexuality you become aware of something that the black or gay community doesn’t want to address.’
I understand their motivation. When I began recording years ago, I dared to look unquestionably gay. Today, although I no longer wear skintight velvet and heavy jewellery, I am delighted to receive affirmation in this exhibition that I was doing something to help the cause, at least according to the Campbells: a CD cover of my 1991 single ‘Either’ is preserved here, showing me resplendent, skintight velvet and all, alongside other seminal covers by the likes of Skunk Anansie, who were fronted by black bisexual singer Skin. It’s great to see these images in Docklands; they help to prove that Thatcher and her political cronies weren’t the only ones building for the future back in the 1980s.
Outside Edge runs until April 4 at Museum in Docklands, EC2.
See www.museumindocklands.org.uk or www.rukus.co.uk for more information.
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