Originally planned to open in May 2020, this has ended up being the first show at the ICA after more than a year’s closure due to the pandemic. And yet its timing couldn’t be more apt.
War Inna Babylon uses Tottenham as a “symbolic location” to explore Black communities’ activism in the face of decades of societal and institutional racism. Today is the 10th anniversary of the police killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, which prompted unrest that eventually spread across the UK. This show at the ICA is a multimedia presentation on that killing by the investigative group Forensic Architecture. It offers the compelling case – through text, graphics and film, based on exhaustive study of statements and physical evidence – that the official “lawful killing” verdict doesn’t add up. The show counterpoints this scientific approach with Five Families of Tottenham, moving video testimonies from people whose family members have died in police custody or been killed by police, including Duggan’s mother.
This approach is consistent: organised by the racial advocacy and community organisation Tottenham Rights alongside Kamara Scott, who does the voiceover for the Duggan film, and the writer and curator Rianna Jade Parker, the show successfully balances personal testimony alongside rigorous analysis of its subject through text, archival film, photographs and press cuttings. For instance, it doesn’t deal with police brutality in abstract terms: in one display case is a letter to Stafford Scott, co-founder of Tottenham Rights, in which the Met’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner apologises for Scott’s mistreatment, arrest and detainment.
The show offers a narrative through the lived experience of Black communities in the UK in the post-war period from the recruitment of West Indian people for Britain’s public services through the catalogue of institutional racism that followed: the “colour bar” restricting employment and denying basic working rights; police officers “hunting” people of colour; “sus” laws allowing arrests for suspicious behaviour that disproportionately affected Black people; racist housing and educational policies. There are frequent references to the National Front and, across a series of monitors, Enoch Powell appears, spouting his racist bile. There’s a detailed focus on the riot on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham in the 1980s, prompted by the death of Cynthia Jarrett, a Black woman who died during a police search.
But interspersed among much shaming and disturbing material, we witness solidarity and community organising – focuses on the Broadwater Farm Youth Organisation, the Black Parents Movement and bookshops like New Beacon Books.
There are paintings, too: Kimathi Donkor depicts Jarrett’s death, while Garnet Dore paints portraits of Duggan and others who have died on fragmented bits of board, as if they’re torn from family photographs.
But this is mostly not an art exhibition. Some might question why it’s at the ICA, but who cares? It’s a necessary, urgent, at times devastating show. It deserves a couple of hours of your time.