Return Of The Rudeboy

Clash speaks to the project's creators Harris Elliott and Dean Chalkley.

The term rudeboy has been adopted over the last decade by predominantly – but not exclusively – black teenagers who dress in sweatshirt fabrics and take pride in having the latest Nike kicks.

In London secondary schools at least, what Mr. Cameron might deem a hoodie would qualify as a rudeboy, akin to townies, grungers or emos; a default subculture at a time when they’ve supposedly all died out.

‘Return of the Rudeboy’ however – Somerset House’s latest exhibition which opens today – features none of this, instead taking its cue from the capital R Rudeboy of 60’s Jamaica.

“Two years ago when it was the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence, I started to dream about a Rudeboy project,” creative director Harris Elliott tells Clash, who alongside photographer Dean Chalkley created and curated the six room exhibition.

“I had cousins and their friends who were my style icons,” he says of his own introduction to the culture, “there was an attitude and swagger that was so appealing to me from my mid-teens.”

The pair are keen to stress it’s this attitude – as opposed to race or gender – which qualifies a Rudeboy or Rudegirl. They’re also hesitant that the exhibition might be perceived from afar as some kind of reflection on the last fifty years, to which Chalkey states: “This is not a culture wallowing in the past.”

It couldn’t have happened ten years ago he adds, “It’s not a generic format”. It’s also not about being a dandy says Elliott, “the roots come from resistance.” Despite this, style is what unites the individuals pictured, not perhaps in what they’re wearing but how and why they’re wearing it: the confidence, the perspective.

As we roam the rooms Harris describes it “like a live Instagram feed,” later adding (somewhat ironically) that they hid the imagery from social media as much as possible ahead of opening.

The sunlight that streams in each space only animates Dean’s portraits further, highlighting too the complimentary floors of every room; the first is plain wood, acting as an introduction, the second is patterned and boasts mannequins and clothing upon it.

Also on our tour is the stylist Zoe Bedeaux, whose portrait hangs in the ‘unofficial black room’ (it’s walls boast the shade). “The cloth in itself has a text,” she announces of the garments worn by the Rudeboy, “There’s political subtext; dignity, respect, acceptance.”

“We can say this is now the fourth time around,” she asserts, following its origins in 60’s Jamaica and the later integration in the UK in the 70’s and 80’s.

Those featured include the filmmaker Akinola Davies, shopkeeper Dexter De Leetus (one of Elliott’s favourites), the trademark cropped trousers and boots combo of designer Charlie Casely-Hayford, Pauline Black of The Selector, Joshua Kane – who flew in from Portugal especially for the photo – and Art Comes First’s Sam Lambert and Shaka Maidoh.

The latter two are responsible for the four reworked jackets that sit in the second room (they’re sewing as we enter), alongside Mr Hare shoes customised by Barry Kamen; Sam is also the exhibition’s poster boy. While little information partners each portrait (just a name), a website will feature profiles of each throughout the exhibition’s run (here). 

In the third room Johnnie Sarpong is cutting hair in a pop-up edition of the barbers, We Are Cuts. “It was a nice way to be able to give that string a very colourful bow,” Sarpong says of Rudeboy grooming.

The barbers is an integral part of the culture agrees Harris, “You might go in at 9 and leave at 11; it’s your pub.” Anyone who’s walked through Peckham after dark can confirm this remains true.

The social aspect of ‘Return of the Rudeboy’ extends to the music room, which hosts a row of seats and a 1000 ton sound system. “We don't want it to be a funeral, we want people to come and hang out in the gallery.”

Gary Powell – whose portrait shares wall space with Don Letts – has created both mixes and original recordings for the exhibition, while other participants have each contributed song choices which play throughout; screenings and DJ sets will follow.

Offers Harris, “We spend our lives trying to engage many senses, but when it comes to art it's often supposed to be a quiet, library experience. As this project has its roots in style, music and culture, there was no way it couldn't be interactive.”

Like the hat, shoes and trouser length that he says best define the aesthetic, and his opinion of David Bowie and Mos Def as “eternal rudeboys”, it makes perfect sense.

Words: Zoe Whitfield

Until 25th August.

www.somersethouse.org.uk

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