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Young Fathers - Squaring Up to A Black and White World

When Mercury Music Prize winning band Young Fathers were commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to make a short film, the Edinburgh based trio of Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham 'G' Hastings relished the proposition. The context was a UK tour of Van Dyck's seventeenth century painting, Self-portrait. Having been purchased by the NPG in 2014, Van Dyck's work formed a key part of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery's Summer 2017 exhibition, Looking Good: The Male Gaze from Van Dyck to Lucien Freud, which explored male image, identity and appearance.

Young Fathers' film was one of six commissions. Other artists who made films were Marcus Coates, John Stezaker, Mark Wallinger, Karrie Fransman and Jason Turner. It was Young Fathers' film, however, that garnered much of the attention.

Over a low electronic hum, the film, shot in SNPG, features a text co-written by Bankole with Young Fathers former manager Tim Brinkhurst. The words are spoken in voice-over by Massaquoi, as Bankole squares up to some of the portraits after dark. As he strips off his shirt, shadow-boxing with the heroic images of some of history's greats, the text challenges how such icons of privilege and power came to be immortalised in this way. In keeping with the Young Fathers canon, word, sound and images combine to make something provocative, righteous and profound.

When the film was put online at the start of August, it was targeted by right wing trolls, who claimed the film was anti white. The film was briefly taken down at the band's request, before being re-posted shortly after, following statements from both the National Galleries of Scotland and the band.

Young Fathers' film was a timely accompaniment to Black Burns, Douglas Gordon's contemporary response, both to John Flaxman's 1824 statue of Robert Burns that sits in the SNPG, and to received notions of the Scots poet. The film sits well too with The Slave's Lament, Graham Fagen's reggaefied reappropriation of a poem by Burns, installed in the next room to Black Burns throughout the 2017 Edinburgh Art Festival.

Given that Burns almost became a slave trader, and that many of his contemporaries made their fortunes from slavery in a way that allowed them to commission self-aggrandising portraits of themselves, Young Fathers weren't acknowledging anything new. In this way, Young Fathers are reclaiming a history which ordinary people have been whitewashed from by creating a very different kind of masterpiece. The film's plea for equality is vital.

Scottish Art News, Autumn/ Winter 2017


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