Don’t throw activist histories away: Huntley Conference on Arts & Activism, Culture & Resistance

21 Feb 2012 jane

18th February, London

El Crisis

There were over a 100 artists, activists, community workers, young people, archivists & conservators, educators, parents, grandparents, policymakers. We were taking part in talks, creative “Groundings” sessions, a parallel youth conference, music & poetry performances, from the fabulous El Crisis, younger talented artists, and the more experienced, discussing race and power, creativity and resilience, protest and activism…..and feasting on delicious food from Jollofpot, book stalls, all in the great facilities of London Metropolitan Archives (LMA).

What was brilliant and so rich about this day was we were learning about art, activism and Black struggle through the legacy and networks of the two activists Jessica and Eric Huntley, now in their 80s, who arrived in London from Guyana in the late 1960s.

Eric and Jessica Huntley, Huntley Conference 2009
Eric and Jessica Huntley, 2009

They set up a pioneering publishing company Bogle l’Ouverture, a bookshop, dozens of art projects. Their home and bookshop became a hub for thinkers, campaigners, creative people. The Huntleys gave their personal archive to the London Metropolitan Archives a few years back, and it’s totally inspiring to see how flyers, notes from meetings, publications, letters, posters, film, photographs are all being catalogued and becoming live public resources. This changes the way London’s history is presented. It’s part of correcting how the mainstream usually edits out the contributions of communities it would rather ignore.

We were blessed with Eric and Jessica’s presence and also their family, and to me this gave an incredible sense of being part of an extended family of people, who are all working in a thousand different creative ways to wear away at racism, exclusion, and the suppression of rights. The day felt totally like part of movement-building, and particularly in Errol Lloyd’s far-reaching presentation, where he connected up so many issues. The fact that this was happening in an archive felt kind of subversive and very interesting, like we were somehow the living part of the archive of activist objects which Jessica and Eric donated. In fact the yearly Huntley conferences are filmed, and archived, as part of the collection.

illustrated by keynote speaker Errol Lloyd

One of many things that stays with me is from distinguished activist, children’s writer and teacher Dr Petronella Breinburg who has just given her archive to LMA. She came to Britain from Surinam as a highly qualified person in the 1960s. Dr Breinburg, now in her 80s, spoke about her journey living in Britain, and the motivations behind her children’s books which were the first in Britain to feature black children. Total pioneer. We were taken into the conservation room and shown some of the archive items including a rent book from her damp basement flat in Hackney where she lived with her two children. She was unable to get a job at her level of education for many years, due to racist assumptions by the British state that her qualifications were of less value. Later she got a PhD here. Somehow, that well-used rent book summed up the resilience of thousands of people. It really brought a whole new sensibility to activism to our eyes.

I went to artist Roshini Kempadoo‘s ‘Groundings’ workshop, on her work with archives and libraries in Guyana, where she was at school. She spoke about the terrible state of archives there, and how so many documents are rotting or getting damaged through lack

Roshini Kempadoo

of funds and expertise to preserve them. Also about how expertise was not handed on by the outgoing British… There was lots of discussion about the fact that such archives really only contains things in the interest of the British state, and how to intervene in that. That they can be damaging and melancholy.


The question came up “How can you make interventions on what is not there?” The role of the artist was part of the answer, thinking about Toni Morrison’s ‘re-membering’, from her book Beloved.

I came away affirmed all over again that we need to make sure we tell our own stories, preserve our own artefacts, take care as best we can to represent our own history… If we don’t, the history that will prevail in the mainstream is one that will edit us out, misrepresent, or worse. I also felt so happy that this well-run, thought-provoking, political and joyful event could take place in LMA, supported by such committed, progressive staff with a really long-term view on what they are doing.

Practical Tips – Activists are notorious for throwing stuff away because they are getting on with the next fight, but this can mean we lose opportunities to make our own history and learn from others’ history. The LMA archivist said, keep your stuff in a dry space with a fairly constant temperature! Scan important docs if you can, and put on a disc, put online, but DON’T BIN ANY PRECIOUS ORIGINALS…

And if you haven’t already, start collecting now if you want a chance of a certain history being told…

London Metropolitan Archives is always looking for archives from ordinary people, organisations, and groups who have a particular London story to tell… Don’t be put off by plain-looking website.


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