Where Are All The African Flags?
An expanded view of Black British history has room for many stories.
I am a graphic designer, consultant, lecturer and the founder of Black Outdoor Art, an initiative that platforms Black British creativity on billboards. In October of this year, I created billboard art as a commentary on Black History Month here in the UK.
The piece was titled Black History Addendum and featured the words ‘We did not come to Britain, Britain came to us,’ set in a typeface I designed called Empire Windrush. The words are bordered by an assortment of Caribbean flags. Following my concept art, the billboards were installed in Notting Hill and Kilburn, London.
When I posted images of the billboard online, I had not expected it to promptly go viral. But the public response was as immense as it was immediate — the artwork had somehow resonated with thousands of people, from diverse backgrounds. But of those responses, many were of confusion, hurt and anger.
While said responses varied in length and tone, their overall query was the same: ‘where are all the African flags?’
But for me to answer this properly, we must first travel back to 2020.
That was the year of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. A 12-month groundswell that extended from Minneapolis, USA, to most of the world. A year that saw even Britain grapple — often problematically — with its racism, prejudice, and inequality issues.
I recall a news interview during that time, where a once-ubiquitous Black British pop star, was caught off guard by the reporter sharply demanding something to the effect of: ‘What do Black people want?’ As though she was instantaneously connected to the lives and needs of almost 2 million people in Britain, across a range of backgrounds and demographics.
As was evident by the responses on social media, I was not alone in recognising this absurdity. As all too often, singular public Black figures are called upon to speak — or even answer — for an entire diaspora.
With Black Lives Matter at the forefront of national discourse during this time, I too added my voice to the conversation through my art. I created a poster featuring the words ‘I Can’t Breathe,’ with that last word fading into oblivion.
A stark, typographic representation of not just George Floyd’s final words, but Eric Garner’s too, eight years ago at the hands of an NYC police officer. Through a friend at the outdoor agency Brotherhood Media, the artwork was installed on billboards across London within days.
The artwork arrived to a near-overwhelming, though mostly positive public reception. Images of the billboards were widely shared across social media. Journalists wanted to discuss the work. People arranged to meet up underneath them to attend protests. I felt energised, and useful.
The media agency invited me to do more billboards. But I paused, recalling the news segment I had seen a couple of weeks prior, and the words in that jarring interview: ‘What do Black people want?’
Many social activism and protest movements, from the Civil Rights movement of 1960s America, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and our working-class antiracist organisations in the 70s and 80s, all share common DNA: they are bigger than one person. Bigger than a single perspective. They usually represent coalitions, collaborations, and communities, and as such, they are often intersectional.
OSPAAAL, the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America, was a Cuba-based, international non-governmental organisation formed in 1966. OSPAAAL decried colonialism and imperialism with powerful propaganda in the shape of some 300 posters, which they produced over 50 years. The posters were designed to reach the liberation struggles of oppressed people throughout the world. They spoke to different movements where no single poster could do so.
Here in London, I proposed an alternative pathway for our burgeoning billboard project. Instead of platforming a single voice to speak for an entire culture, I would invite the culture to speak for themselves. I would ask other Black British designers and artists, to creatively express their perspectives and responses to this moment. We would therefore show the breadth of our experience, one that cannot be reduced to an individual narrative.
And we did just that, for over two years. We produced billboards with words, illustrations, photography, paintings, and collages. We platformed creatives of Ghanaian, Zimbabwean, Nigerian, and Caribbean backgrounds. We displayed collaborations with creatives of South Asian heritage and even white allies. But through it all, no one artwork claimed to speak for or to represent everyone within the Black British community.
And even though I produced several of these artworks, many were the result of conversations, discussions, and collaborations. And in October of this year, I found myself in such a discussion, this time around Black History Month.
I have always felt a sense of ambivalence towards Black History Month. The idea of carving out a single space on the calendar, where we recognise an expanded and more honest account of British history has always been troublesome to me. It feels as though historical truths about race, are entirely optional as far as the status quo is concerned.
I was raised in a Caribbean household in London in the late 1970s and grew up around harmful narratives and stereotypes of Caribbean men and women, many of which stubbornly persist to this day.
Last summer, the return of Notting Hill Carnival after a two-year absence was marked by a deluge of negative press and breathtakingly racist tweets. In the aftermath of a fatally violent incident, one political commentator referred to the violence as ‘the cost of diversity.’ If such perspectives are taken as fact, it is a safe bet that our culture and its traditions will be footing the bill.
Make no mistake, when one of ‘us’ puts a foot wrong; our entire culture is held accountable. But should one of us defy the odds and social barriers, rising to any inkling of success, our culture is in turn denied the credit. Success is instead ascribed to exceptional individual effort, or Britain herself — the entity responsible for the barriers in the first place.
But this phenomenon is nothing new for the British Caribbean community. For decades we have been characterised as lazy shirkers and absent fathers. Inherently violent and uncouth. Promiscuous, misogynistic, jobless drains on the economy. An invading force, unwelcome and uninvited, disturbing the tranquillity of whitewashed Britain, now less in need of our contributions.
Added to this, is the ignominy of the Windrush scandal (‘Windrush’ refers to Caribbean migrants that arrived in Britain from 1948–1973, to fill post-WWII labour shortages). This was a particularly nasty episode back in 2018, where many Caribbean migrants were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, and wrongly deported from the UK by the Home Office.
In devising a response to these observations, and my musings on the efficacy of Black History Month, I recalled a video I had seen by the rapper/author/activist Akala. When discussing Britain’s pernicious relationship with race and history, Akala referenced the phrase “we did not come to Britain, Britain came to us,” which originated in the writing of Adam Elliott-Cooper, a research fellow in sociology at the University of Greenwich.
In his 2015 article When did we come to Britain? You must be mistaken, Britain came to us, Elliott-Cooper explores how Britain’s role as a major imperial power brought about mass migration, and unwittingly united a heterogeneous Black population in a common struggle.
When discussing the need for expanded narratives of Black British history, Elliott-Cooper states:
‘Unlike the United States, no one group within Britain’s Black population owns the narrative of Black people. In considering this, a formation of Black history in Britain can serve to not only tell a single story or viewpoint, but multiple stories and ideas.’
I felt this article would be a good starting point for new artwork, challenging the framing of Black British history. However, the topic of imperialism and the legacy of global colonialism is voluminous, to say the least.
The reality of producing an artwork that can address such a gargantuan concept, while speaking to all experiences and perspectives, felt not only unfeasible but problematic. And to do so would undermine the very reason the project exists, as per the question: ‘What do Black people want?’
Well, Black culture is not monolithic, and one size does not fit all. In addition, I do not believe a large enough billboard exists, to graphically capture the full scope of the topic.
So instead, I narrowed my focus. Rather than representing the entirety of global cultures impacted by British imperialism and colonialism, my artwork instead focuses on the nations of the commonwealth Caribbean — the island and mainland nations that once made up the Caribbean portion of the British Empire (also known as the British West Indies), depicted in the flags bordering the artwork.
I created something authentic to my experience. A tribute to my upbringing, heritage, and community. For those who came before me. A reminder of Hugh Mills Bunbury, the English plantation owner, whose 18th-century Guyanese estate produced both sugar and illegitimate children bearing his name.
Black History Addendum is about historical narratives and the impact of such narratives on those living under them. It is about Empire, Windrush, and migration.
This is not to reduce, ignore or sideline African nations or other cultures throughout the world, that have suffered and survived colonial and imperial struggles.
This is not to stratify our experiences and histories, by placing more emphasis on one group over another.
This is not to create discord or animosity within Black British communities, by pitting said communities against each other.
This is not a view of history that erases the African origins of Caribbean people.
This is simply a take. A perspective. An expression within a sea of expression. The reality of diversity and the scope of the Black experience. A lens — not a window.
I can empathise with why some people feel unseen by this artwork, especially when it has garnered so much attention and coverage. But such responses are missing the point. This work is not about ‘winning’ at oppression, nor is it a tick-box approach to representation. Especially when we bemoan such approaches in other mediums or contexts.
I do not believe that the purpose of my art is to be all things to all people. It is to authentically present my perspective and experience, in the hope that it creates discourse and transformation. And hopefully, through the Black Outdoor Art project and others like it, we can find spaces for more perspectives and experiences. Spaces for different and innovative modes of creativity and expression. Spaces for other voices, other flags.
Isn’t that what we want?