Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism captures one of the most exciting and turbulent political periods in British post-war history. Active between 1976 to 1981, Rock Against Racism (RAR) was a ground-breaking movement formed by a collective of musicians and political activists to confront racist ideology in the streets, parks, and town halls of Britain through music.
Under the slogan ‘Love Music, Hate Racism’, RAR showcased reggae and punk bands on the same stage, attracting large multicultural audiences. At a time when the fascist attitudes of the National Front were gaining support, RAR marked the rising resistance to violent and institutionalised racism. Legendary performers included The Clash, Misty in Roots, Aswad, XRay Spex, Elvis Costello, Tom Robinson and The Specials, as well as the audiences at RAR gigs and carnivals across England.
Shelton captured the history-making RAR Carnival at Victoria Park, London in 1978 attended by 100,000 people and pivotal moments such as the Anti National Front demonstration in Lewisham in 1977. The images presented in this display include the social and cultural context that informed the politics of the RAR movement across England and Ireland.
In the five years that RAR operated, the National Front lost support and any hope of winning an election. Shelton says, “I hope the exhibition shows that you can change things and you can actually take a stand, even in the most difficult of situations.” A message that is still very relevant today.
Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism revisits the energy of RAR, the creative entanglement of black and white musicians, designers, writers, actors, performers, and supporters who produced counter-narratives to whiteness as superior and blackness as alienated. Shelton’s photographs remind us that RAR was a particular treatise on belonging in Britain.
Members of the bands Dambala and Misty in Roots with Tom Robinson perform in the finale of the Militant Entertainment Tour, Alexandra Palace, London 1979
Having studied fine art in Yorkshire, Syd Shelton began his photography practice in the early 1970s, following a move to Australia. In Sydney, Shelton worked as a freelance photo-journalist for newspapers such as Nation Review, Tribune, and Digger. In 1975 he had a solo exhibition of his photographs, ‘Working Class Heroes’ at the Sydney Film-makers Cooperative. In 1976, Syd returned to London and become one of the key activists in the movement Rock against Racism.
He was the photographer and one of the designers of the RAR magazine ‘Temporary hoarding’ which was published between 1976 to 1981. During the 1980s, as well as producing photographs for magazines and the press, Shelton co-edited, and was art director of, a series of photographic books that includes the award-winning Day in the Life of London. His work has been widely published and exhibited and is in numerous collections including the V&A, The Tate Gallery, The Photographers Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery, Atlas Gallery and Autograph ABP. Shelton's photographs from the 1970s are featured in the touring exhibitions Facing Britain and Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism and the accompanying monograph which was first published by Autograph in 2015 and republished in March 2023 by Rare Bird Books in Los Angeles.
This display of Rock Against Racism is a collaboration between Imperial Health Charity and Autograph, London. The selection of photographs originally formed part of the touring exhibition Rock Against Racism curated by Mark Sealy, Director of Autograph, and Carol Tulloch, Professor of Dress, Diaspora and Transnationalism at University of the Arts, London.
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