Updated: Oct 31, 2021
Marvel Studios' Black Panther costumes in the Power of Stories exhibition at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, Suffolk.
A very special exhibition, Power of Stories, opened in Ipswich in June 2021 (after a delay of more than one year due to Covid); it featured three original Black Panther costumes and focuses on African-Caribbean heritage. Being unique to the UK, not just in the East of England, it has been a catalyst for the local Black community – and our allies – to respond in a positive way.
The exhibition was a rare opportunity to reinvigorate the community to share our own stories and raise our profile, which had long been lost in unbalanced images of Suffolk as green rolling hills, only white people and affluent.
The reality is that Ipswich especially is a very diverse town with a large African-Caribbean community. But our presence must be celebrated not overlooked.
I am the project manager for Aspire Black Suffolk (soon to be a Community Interest Company), which is the result of the community’s response to Power of Stories.
The initiative was born out of discussions between the museum team and the community back in 2019 when the decision was jointly made to ask Marvel Studios to loan items from the Black Panther film – Marvel responded offering the three costumes! The community programme, which I was invited to head up snowballed, resulting in a varied series of cultural activities between June and November 2021.
In close collaboration with other community members, we agreed for Aspire Black Suffolk’s aims: to improve representation of Black people in the county by showcasing our diversity, skills and talent; sharing our stories; and welcoming people of other ethnicities to engage in our events.
Since initial discussions about the community aspect of the Power of Stories started among the community and museum curators in 2019, Aspire Black Suffolk has snowballed, with it being recently referred to as a ‘movement’.
Now feels like the right time for the county’s community to revive its sense of belonging and pride, with Power of Stories and Aspire Black Suffolk enabling this to happen on a surprising scale.
What is Aspire Black Suffolk?
Launched on Windrush Day (June 22) this year, Aspire Black Suffolk is a six-month, Black-led cultural programme which celebrates the African-Caribbean community’s contribution to the county’s economy and culture, while elevating the expectations of young Black people. Aspire Black Suffolk also aims to create a legacy. In fact, the legacy had already begun to take shape even before the programme’s launch, as so much excitement and engagement had developed during the planning stage.
Building on decades of hard work among the Black community here, Aspire Black Suffolk was initially set up as an informal network, which comprises a diversity of people from the county’s Black community and allies of other ethnicities. Together we are dedicated to raising the profile of African-Caribbean culture in an area of the country which has historically been represented in an unbalanced, and, therefore, an unbalanced way.
A collaboration between Power of Stories, Aspire Black Suffolk and music company, Tis Respect, from Ipswich.
Personally, I believe this has been the result of conscious bias as well as downright prejudice with some people making decisions based on their own image, ignoring the vibrant community which has been contributing to Suffolk’s society for generations.
This outdated mono-image is inacceptable. We refuse to be overlooked. And Aspire Black Suffolk – alongside other community initiatives – is providing an additional platform to ensure our voices are heard loud and proud.
Our programme is ending in November, but we are about to become a community interest company and a longer-term entity (please see the information below). I have joined forces with three other women to launch Aspire Black Suffolk in a more formal capacity; together we intend to continue the work into the future, and building in a succession plan so young Black people can become social leaders.
Mural from Art Eat Events CIC is a nod to Power of Stories exhibition and depiction of the Black experience.
What inspired Aspire Black Suffolk?
The programme is inspired by and running in association with Power of Stories, the current exhibition in Ipswich featuring three original costumes from Marvel's Black Panther film (Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa, Letitia Wright's Shuri and Danai Gurira's Okoye). More information about the exhibition can be seen in this BBC feature, and is featured in the September edition of heritage sector’s leading publication, Museums Journal.
Although outwardly Power of Stories is not obviously a Black-focussed event, the high quality of the curation makes it evident that that is exactly where the focus is.
The exhibition was co-curated with members of the local Black community, and includes a comic book art mural depicting the history of the Windrush generation in Ipswich. Objects in the displays are the same or very similar to items seen in the Black Panther film, and some are on loan from the homes of local people.
The museum curators have received amazing feedback from the visiting public, and I have received an incredible reaction for Aspire Black Suffolk.
Aspects of Power of Stories exhibition: photo of Olive Morris by Neil Kenlock; comic art mural by Dan Malone.
Both the exhibition and community initiative have served to re-invigorate a fatigued, and in many cases, traumatised community, which has felt excluded, underrepresented and ignored for decades by the powers that be here in Suffolk.
Life outside large urban centres is different for people of colour (I have experienced both, having grown up in Cambridgeshire and lived in London for 20 years). We need to create our own safe spaces, and with fewer people in a position to do that, constantly being proactive becomes exhausting.
Young people from Ipswich Community Media participated in the initiative.
Power of Stories has made it possible for people to believe once again that more can be done, and that it is possible to create longevity by inspiring younger generations to lead the way.
Aspire can be seen as a form of activism, which is highly unusual for a semi-rural area of the UK, making our work all the more special. In the last few years, there has been shift – the local media have been supportive by covering our stories and seeking out more diversity in their coverage. Also, a photographic exhibition is featured on The Guardian website in an exclusive photo feature.
The growing Aspire Black Suffolk network
Our network mushroomed in the run-up to our launch and currently includes grassroots organisations, community leaders, local arts professionals and organisations (e.g. Britten Pears Arts and DanceEast – both highly reputable music and cultural venues in Suffolk), festivals such as the Woodbridge Festival and Primadonna Festival (the latter invited two young Black women to record a podcast episode in front of a live audience).
Also, impressed with our work include the former head of Motown UK and international live music agent Les Spaine; UNISON’s regional Black Member’s Committee, and award-winning actor Juliet Gilkes Romero.
Activities included gigs, educational talks, performance and more: photo of Jazzie B by John Ferguson.
Aspire Black Suffolk’s activity
Funded by money from the Arts Council England and the National Heritage Lottery Fund, Aspire Black Suffolk’s activities to date include heritage talks, educational projects on Black history, confidence workshops, live music and poetry, cooking classes and Yoruba language lessons.
Moving forwards our ambitions are big. We are planning more ‘first ever’ events and programmes for Suffolk – all to be delivered through arts, culture and education with a focus on young people.
As a CIC our team will be facilitating and delivering expertise in areas including youth justice, social justice, education, diversity and inclusion, professional development, creative skills development and cultural events. We hope to generate work for other members of the Black community and our allies to strengthen our culture and economy in Suffolk.