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By JADE JACKMAN, MARYAM AKRAM
Anyone who knows Maryam or myself will tell you that we are often late. Despite our attention being grabbed by the promises of Fred Perry, our arrival at Toby Mott’s ‘Where Have all the Bootboys Gone’, was no exception. So, amidst a flurry of faux-fur, we entered the exhibition gasping for air to find, for once, that we were not the only ones wearing Doc Martens. In other words, breathing relics of the Skinhead era had surrounded us.
This might sound disdainful, and in some ways it is. Mott’s skill as a curator should not be doubted, but to the eye of a young viewer the exhibition may seem a little dry. As one would expect, black and white posters of anarchic youths were rife and the distinctive Trojan record label was a reoccurring motif. On one level, Mott’s decision to position speakers alongside the works can be seen to give life and
context to the works. But, as you do not need to resuscitate the living, it served to exemplify that punk is dead. Or, at least, dormant. Slightly disillusioned by the visual contents of the exhibition, we wandered into the question and answer session. The talk was chaired
by rock music journalist Gary Bushell, which reinforced how music is integral to the appreciation of the Skinhead culture. Throughout, it was almost compulsively repeated that punk originated as working class movement; one generated as a response to mass unemployment and dissatisfaction with social conditions. Yet, when questions were opened up to the audience, it became
obvious that the Skinhead tradition was still a matter of contention.
Before we knew what was happening, the microphone was thrust towards various members of the audience. As anticipated, a voice started with the words “I was an original skinhead”. Expecting a nostalgic rant, I rolled my eyes and slumped in my seat. Earlier there had already been a celebration of days gone by, and the seemingly dull collection of album covers seemed to portray one single dialogue—the working-class struggle. Instead, the voice confronted us with the racial divisions that had been re-enforced by the movement. At this point, we flicked through the booklet in our hands to find that there was a distinct lack of ethnic minorities.
From this point, the images were transformed. It became clear that these were not just images, but the visual manifestations of a plethora of social problems and stigmatisations. Even now, the movement’s association with the far right resonated through the lecture theatre. The anguish in the man’s shout became a stain on the wall; the talk was tarnished, and would not recover. It could not be denied that there was a racist undercurrent that still impacted how people felt today. In this way, the Skinhead legacy lives on.
It is indisputable, however, that the exhibition was powerful and the images spoke of a subculture with distinctive music, fashion and style. The images gave the viewer a glimpse into the world of the skinhead in the 60’s and 70’s with their music drumming in your ears.
Where have All The Bootboys Gone? is on at Upper Street Gallery, London College of Communication, Elephant & Castle, SE1 6SB until 2 November (except Sundays). Admission is free. More information is available here.