Without wishing to sound unduly morbid, death is irrefutably part of life; or, as the poet T.S. Eliot famously remarked in Sweeney Agonistes (pdf), “Life is death.” From classical writers who expounded the notion of dying to African-American novelists James Baldwin and Walter Mosley, much of whose work is permeated by the fear of it, the notion of death, its ubiquity and its centrality to the human condition have exercised great minds throughout history and have also acted as a source of creative inspiration for great artists for millennia.
Charlie Phillips, a Jamaican-born photographer and highly gifted, assiduous documenter of the black British experience, is a rare breed who combines the adventurous, pioneering spirit and perennial resilience of the hardy immigrant (he came to Britain in the 1950s) with the sensitive eye of the aesthete and a longing to transmute the banal, the prosaic and the unpalatable in ordinary existence into a thing of ineffable beauty. Phillips’ work deserves to be far better known than it is.
Arguably the most important (yet least lauded) black British photographer of his generation, Phillips has documented several periods in the development of the West Indian community in Britain, often around West London—and in so doing has captured a community from its infancy through its subsequent maturity, depicting its struggles against racism and discrimination as well as its yearnings for equality and acceptance.
“How Great Thou Art,” on display at the Photofusion gallery in Brixton, South London—itself the cultural and spiritual mecca of black Britain—and curated by Eddie Otchere and Lizzy King, is a collection of beautifully evocative, powerfully elegiac images celebrating 50 years of African-Caribbean funerals in London from the 1960s until the present day, and is a fitting testament to the quality of Phillips’ body of work.
While it is so often the proverbial elephant in the room, here Phillips readily embraces “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” as a source of creative energy, vitality and profound insight into our human predicament, fashioning his own deeply felt artistic offering from our myriad responses to death.
Be it coffins carried by stoical pallbearers, cortèges with elaborately decorative wreaths, effusive relatives in forlorn cemeteries or Rastafarian graveside services honoring the deceased, these images are intimate, sincere and resolutely human. In them, one can almost feel the tears rolling down soft, brown matriarchal cheeks and almost hear the mellifluous, Jamaican-patois-inflected eulogies being delivered by proud, old Caribbean men lamenting life’s evanescence.
Miraculously, these images are strangely unsentimental and devoid of the lugubriousness one would normally expect when focusing on death, despite all of its pomp, ceremony and pathos. With apparent ease, Phillips magisterially captures the defiance, the tenderness and the vulnerability of grief and the chasmlike sadness of loss, while also managing to evoke the irreverence and flamboyance of the distinctly Caribbean attitude to breaching the final frontier.
In his subjects’ most arduous and challenging hours, Phillips is never intrusive but a fellow companion in mourning, as opposed to a voyeuristic interloper. His images are suffused with compassion, humanity and, perhaps somewhat ironically, life. This is Phillips’ own community, and as a community stalwart, with his camera he affords respect to the grieving and the departed, even if in life they had not always been respected by their adopted country.
Moreover, these photographs lend a precious human dignity to otherwise easily forgotten lives. In the famous words of Gray’s “Elegy,” they proudly document “the short and simple annals of the poor.” They also serve as a sobering and highly effective memento mori: “Such as I am now, such shall thou be tomorrow.”
Paul Goodwin, professor of black art and design at the University of the Arts, London, says, “Possibly one of the greatest contributions Charlie Phillips has made in his art is the way his work expresses, almost to a letter, the truth of the great French humanist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s mantra that great photojournalism captures intimate moments of urban life where the photographer forgets himself ‘recording in a fraction of a second the emotion of the subject, and the beauty of the form; that is, a geometry awakened by what’s offered.’” (Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind’s Eye)
With this exhibition, it is immensely gratifying to see Phillips finally beginning to receive the level of artistic recognition that a practitioner of his caliber deserves. It is doubly gratifying to see that recognition at last coming from beyond the black community. His body of photographic work documents a vital but often overlooked period of British postwar history, and at 70 his is a remarkable victory for perseverance in the face of a fickle and bigoted British art establishment. Quite simply, talent is talent, regardless of its provenance or skin color—and should be acknowledged as such. Here, at last, one hopes it will be.
“How Great Thou Art” is currently on display at the Photofusion gallery in Electric Lane, Brixton, London, until Dec. 5.
Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster.