The Pioneers Collection: honouring the elders of the Bristol Caribbean community

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By Fin Strathern, Third Year History

Bristol artist and photographer Garfield McKenzie is creating a portrait collection to celebrate leading figures amongst the Bristol Caribbean community. Epigram had the chance to speak with Garfield at the St Pauls Learning Centre regarding his ambitions for the project, how it fits into Black History Month, and on the background behind some of the individuals pictured.

Having been brought up by his grandparents after his mother passed, he became motivated to create the Pioneers collection because he has always ‘felt a strong connection towards his elders’. He went on to say that there is a ‘wisdom and life experience’ within elders that is important to document and teach to younger members of the community.

Garfield McKenzie in front of his portrait collection | Epigram / Fin Strathern

Mr McKenzie titled the collection ‘Pioneers’ because he believes that the Windrush generation that moved from the Caribbean to Britain in the years following World War Two were ‘true pioneers in paving the way for future generations’ in their struggle for racial equality.

The portraits are part of an exhibition coinciding with Black History Month, but Mr McKenzie said he dislikes the term ‘black history’ because he believes we should be taught ‘the missing pages of world history’ all year round, thus eliminating the need for one month being dedicated to it.

‘There is a lack of historical memory in the African family that holds us back. The narrative of British history taught in schools tries to remind Europeans of the good of empire – it does not teach children of the great damage it has caused and, even still, failed to repair.’

In 1962, Roy Hackett was a founding member of the Commonwealth Coordinated Committee (CCC), established to improve living conditions, promote integration, and seek equal opportunities for the Caribbean community in Bristol and beyond.

Roy Hackett was one of the leading figures of the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott and is still fighting racism in his 90s | Gee Photography / Garfield McKenzie

Roy was a key figure in the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott which arose from the Bristol Omnibus Company’s refusal to hire 18-year-old Guy Bailey solely on the basis that he was black.

Within four months of announcing the boycott, the Bristol Caribbean community successfully forced the company to cease any form of discrimination in employing bus drivers.

The boycott helped contribute to wider changes in UK legislation with the Race Relations Act that was passed in 1965 and made racial discrimination unlawful in public places.

Barbara Dettering is another community figure featured in the collection. As well as being a teacher in Bristol for many years, Barbara was also a leading member of the CCC.

Barbara Dettering helped establish St Paul’s Carnival to bring together communities in the area | Gee Photography / Garfield McKenzie

She was one of the members responsible for organising the first St Pauls Carnival held in 1968 to celebrate the multiculturalism in the area. Since then St Pauls Carnival has grown into one of Bristol’s biggest and most renowned annual events.

In addition to those fighting for equality, many individuals in the collection are treasured for their cultural and artistic gifts to the community. Mrs Williams raised her son, who would go on to become the innovative drum and bass DJ Roni Size, in St Andrews after migrating from Jamaica.

Mrs Williams is the mother of legendary drum and bass DJ Roni Size | Gee Photography / Garfield McKenzie

Garfield told us how important it was for him to include individuals and stories that have helped contribute to the creative arts in Bristol, as he ‘considers music and the cultural trends that follow it’ one of the ways in which Caribbean migrants have influenced Bristol most.

Considering the decades of work members of the Caribbean community have dedicated to improving racial equality in Bristol and beyond, it is hardly surprising that popular opinion is calling for the toppled statue of Edward Colston to be replaced with one of the many respected elders featured in the Pioneers collection.

Mrs Williams waiting for her food at the Learning Centre café in St Pauls | Gee Photography / Fin Strathern

Mr McKenzie concluded his interview by asking students at the University to ensure they educate themselves on the struggles faced by the Windrush generation.

‘They came as victims of colonisation, and not long before that they were victims of slavery, and not long before that they were stolen from their countries. The wealth that has been built on the backs of Africans was done so unwillingly and the disrespect the Windrush generation has faced since their arrival in Britain is a crying shame.’


The Pioneers Collection is an ongoing project, if you would like to participate, or know of anyone who might, you can get in touch:

(http://www.geephotography.co.uk/wp/contact-us/

Epigram would like to thank the Real Photography Company who are hosting the exhibit at the St Paul's Learning Centre for their support.

Featured Image: Gee Photography / Garfield McKenzie

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