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Inspiring ‘Rebellion To Romance’ Stories Celebrated in New Online Gallery

Norman Francis c. 1984 one of the archival photos of second-generation West Indians in 1970s and 80s Leeds featured in the Rebellion to Romance online gallery on the city’s Leodis photographic archive.

The 2022 exhibition, Rebellion to Romance: We are Black, British, West Indian and Leeds, was one of the most popular ever staged by Jamaica Society Leeds.

Seen by over 25,000 people as part of the Society’s Out of Many Festival, the exhibition explored the lives of second-generation West Indians coming of age in Leeds during the 70s and 80s, and how they embraced both their Caribbean roots and the new Black British identity they were forging.

Now it can reach an even bigger audience thanks to a new permanent online collection of photos from the exhibition.

The exhibition, included a whole host of personal and powerful photograph, many of which can now be seen in a specially curated digital Rebellion to Romance gallery on Leodis, the photographic archive for Leeds.

Dorothy Stewart, chair of Jamaica Society Leeds which collaborated with Leeds City Council to produce the online gallery, says: “These digital archives help tell the story of our city and the people, places and memories of all its communities, including the second-generation West Indians whose lives were so brilliantly captured in the Rebellion to Romance exhibition as part of our Out of Many Festival.

“This gallery is a fitting legacy to that exhibition and ensures the people and stories it reflects live on for future generations to appreciate.”

This new Rebellion to Romance gallery on Leodis, which is free to access, illuminates the experiences and cultural influences of a generation during an era of turmoil and change – everything from activism and resistance, style and music to parenthood and consciousness.

At the heart of this unique online collection is how important Potternewton Park was to the city’s young Black British community of the day. Pictures of second-generation West Indians in the 1970s and 80s, sit alongside a series of their contemporary portraits taken in Chapeltown’s landmark green space and personal memories of growing up in the Leeds.

Captured by renowned photographer Vanley Burke, dubbed the “Godfather of Black British photography”, the modern portraits were taken at Potternewton Park, a hugely popular social space where young black people from Chapeltown and elsewhere in the city would come together, particularly at weekends in the summer months.

“Potternewton Park was the ideal place to photograph the second-generation because of their affinity with the space,” says Vanley Burke. “Often these inner-city areas which were predominantly occupied by migrant communities become gentrified and exclude those who once lived there.

“I wanted to acknowledge the importance of the relationships between this community and Potternewton Park. There is a long and unique history of the people from the Caribbean and the park that helped them forge their own new identity within a wider British culture. This was where they went on Sundays, walked to and from school, played football, rounders and cricket, dated and, most importantly, celebrated their annual Carnival,” he says.

“I was also interested in the African Caribbean community’s resistance to racism. Placing them in the park wasn’t just about a place to have fun. Whether they were aware or not, gathering there was a form of coping and resistance.”

Among those featured in his powerful photos is a sharply dressed Joan Fishley, whose studio portrait taken in the mid-1980s shows her in a tuxedo, reflecting her family’s background in tailoring and fashion.

Joan Fishley c. 1985.
Vanley Burke’s 2022 portrait of Joan in the affectionately named ‘Potty Park’.

Joan recalls those days with great fondness. “Potternewton Park on Sundays was the place to be. I had to make sure my Sunday dinner was cooked because I never knew what time I’d get in!”
So, too, does Homer Harriott, who along with his band Bodecian, performed at the 1981 Rock Against Racism Carnival in Potternewton Park. “I wore my brother’s graduation gown over an all-in-one yellow tracksuit – like one of my heroes Bruce Lee wore. I can’t imagine what I looked like on stage!”

Homer Harriott c. 1985.
Homer’s 2022 Potternewton Park portrait by Vanley Burke.

A Vanley Burke portrait captured Norman Francis in a reflective mood. The youth basketball coach, who set up under 16s and under 18s teams in Chapeltown and still helps local young people through sport today, said, “I remember about 40 guys playing football in Potternewton Park with one ball and the girls up on the hill playing rounders.”

Vanley Burke’s 2022 study of Norman Francis.

Susan Pitter, who curated Rebellion to Romance as well as the new online gallery, says: “Black communities are woven into the fabric of Leeds and yet we are underrepresented in the public archives. Without us we do not see a true reflection of our city and its history.

“That’s why the creation of this new gallery is so necessary. It helps to put our presence, lives, impact and contributions to the social, civic and cultural life of Leeds at the heart of its story.”

The Leodis archive, run by Leeds Libraries, features more than 70,000 photographs documenting the history of the city and its communities.

Councillor Mary Harland, Leeds City Council’s executive member for communities, is full of praise for the new gallery: “These fantastic images capture a series of important moments in time for a generation which has made a hugely important, and lasting contribution to life in Leeds.

“Adding them to our Leodis archive is also an important step towards ensuring the contributions of all communities are represented and preserved permanently as part of our city’s unique historical record.”

Susan added, “Our hope is that Rebellion to Romance on Leodis is added to over time and that there will be more galleries that reflect the West Indian presence in Leeds so that our parents and grandparents – the Windrush Generation and the inspirational men and women who came before them – those who arrived since and their descendants now and to come, are rightfully an integral part of the Leodis archive’s storytelling of Leeds too.”

To view the Rebellion to Romance gallery on Leodis gallery visit HERE