Blacklash exhibition at Birmingham Museum highlights the fight against racism
A thought-provoking exhibition exploring the struggle for equality and human rights in the UK is currently running at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
The photographic exhibition, sourced from the archive of activist and curator Mukhtar Dar, reveals the untold stories of ethnic minority groups who united to confront racism and battled to usher in positive change in the UK.
In light of recent divisive events in the South Asian communities of Leicester, a photographic exhibition in Birmingham acts as a positive reminder of unity when South Asians stood in solidarity against fascism and racism, and challenged imperialist stereotypes.
Birmingham-based artist and photographer Mukhtar Dar, who also plays an active role in musical events such as the hugely popular Simmer Down, has unlocked his vast archive and shared some of the material which acts as the basis for the exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
The social and economic history of British South Asians is rarely seen or heard, and with each passing year the stories of people who answered Britain’s call to help rebuild the nation after World War II are being lost as people pass away and archives erode and decay.
The photographs in Dar’s powerful exhibition show South Asian workers and families bravely standing up to dangerous fascists and racists who tried to tear apart ethnic minority communities in industrial mill towns and cities such as Bradford, Sheffield, and Birmingham.
Dar told I Am Birmingham that he was “saddened by recent events in Leicester where 50-years of peace and harmony enjoyed by various ethnic and religious groups have been marred by individuals seeking to wreck the unity in the community” and hopes the Blacklash exhibition will bring people together under a common thread where their shared humanity forms the bedrock for the next generation.
Dar hopes the exhibition will inspire and educate people and encourage debate: “I think it’s important for South Asian youth to discover and understand some of the shared history across the decades in Britain. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and Muslims stood side-by-side at the frontlines when skinheads marched through Asian areas shouting racist obscenities and raising their arms to give Nazi salutes.
“We confronted the thugs and defended our streets and homes against these racist gangs. We were united under a common cause.
“Racism has not gone away. In the age of the internet the nightmare of racism has spread far and wide. Without unity we will never be able to overcome the threat posed to civilisation by the shocking rise of Far Right groups who advocate extremist and apocalyptic ideologies based on racial purity.”
The range of material in the exhibition also acts as a counterpoint to the narrative pushed by colonist and imperialist historians about South Asians in the UK.
Dar’s exhibition is startling and challenges the notion that the British South Asian were passive and their contribution to social and political change in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s was “meek and inactive”.
“South Asians not only stood up to violent paramilitary neo-Nazi groups but we also stood united and marched for workers’ rights and women’s rights. Asian women were paid less even though they worked longer hours than their colleagues, and so we campaigned and stood with the women to get their voices heard,” added Dar.
The archival photographs showcase South Asians challenging intolerant and ignorant groups who tried to intimidate and divide ethnic minorities by using fear and violence.
From the mid-1980s, and over a period of two decades, and across some of the UK’s major inner-cities, Dar has documented the struggles and stories of Asian and African Caribbean communities, including refugees and migrants, who faced a daily tidal wave of institutionalised racism which also included enduring causal acts of racist violence on the streets of cities up and down the country.
Racism was too readily “accepted or explained away, even normalised” and victims had little protection either in the workplace or in social circles, says Dar. He felt compelled to make make a difference.
Dar went on to become a founding member of the Sheffield Asian Youth Movement and later joined the Birmingham Asian Youth Movement.
Dar’s extensive activism also included work with the Pakistani Workers Association and the Black People’s Alliance, including regularly attending demonstrations demanding justice for Palestinians. He has more recently been involved in Stop the War campaign.
Blacklash – Racism and the Struggle for Self-Defence exhibition (in partnership with Kalaboration Arts and BMAG) is part of the partial reopening of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery which has been closed for vital work.
This will be the first chance for visitors to see the journey Birmingham Museums Trust is embarking on to make the museum and the organisation more representative of the people of the city with a new approach to galleries and displays, all driven and co-curated with the people of the city.
The striking new photographic exhibition at the museum is an eyeopening experience and will give visitors the chance to see rarely seen pictures that throw a spotlight on an aspect of social, racial and political history which is underrepresented.
Dar’s photographs uncover the scourge and terror spread by Far-Right and neo-Nazi groups, including political groups such as the British National Party, the English Defence League and National Front, and the damage and division caused by these dangerous groups to the fabric of life in the UK.
Racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism and homophobia – including police brutality – were some of the oppressive forces that were challenged by brave individuals from the diverse communities of the UK.
Drawing on Dar’s extensive archive of photographic, video, and political ephemera, the installation at the museum explores the lived modality of what novelist, political thinker and activist Ambalavaner Sivanandan described as “racism that kills and racism that discriminates”.
The exhibition draws on Dar’s collection of posters – some designed by himself – including leaflets, booklets, and banners.
As part of the Blacklash exhibition there will be a reception and rally – Moments to Movements – which will serve as a reunion of activists from the 1980s.
The reception will include drinks and encourage debate, and is due take place at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on Saturday 8 October from 5:30pm until 9:00pm.
Guests are invited to attend at 4:30pm on the day of the event for a tour of the exhibition and meet and greet some of the speakers and attendees.
The gathering will bring together local and national speakers to connect the struggles of the past to those of the present day and commemorate the death of activist Anwar Ditta who was born in Birmingham. Ditta was an inspirational British woman who was an anti-deportation activist.
The programme will include spoken word poetry, music and personal testimony and analysis which the organisers hope will enlighten, inspire and strengthen the resolve to continue the fight against racism in all its insidious forms.
Blacklash: Racism and the Struggle for Self-Defence is now on display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until Sunday 30 October.