If you’re in London between now and the 9th of February 2014, get yourself to the Afro Supa Hero exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood. I went during Black History Month and I loved it. It costs nothing, but you may like to make a donation to the museum on the way out, or buy some of the fantastic-looking Afro Supa Hero merchandise and thereby support the artist behind it.
The exhibition presents an historical snapshot of childhood and the search for identity as an outsider in a mono-cultural society. Jon Daniel was born and grew up in London to Caribbean parents in the 60s and 70s. Bereft of black icons in popular mainstream children’s culture, he put his older brother, Tony, the original Afro Supa Hero, on a pedestal. From the photos on display, Tony oozed an apparently effortless cool and strength that must have been inspiring and empowering to young Jon.
By the time he had reached his twenties, Jon Daniel began collecting action figures, comic books, board games and other memorabilia that celebrated blackness. On display are mint condition Apollo Creed, Lieutenant Uhura and Mr T action figures, Harlem Globetrotters and Jackson Five board games and a range of comics and books, including the Afro Samurai series.
What becomes apparent very quickly is the lack of black faces in mainstream media during the decades of Jon’s childhood. There are hardly any female icons, and most of the fictional male ones have attributes of physical prowess and cool. As a result, characters such as John Shaft, a blaxploitation character aimed at a more adult audience, became icons for a marginalised youth. Aside from political statesmen such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, there were precious few black role models that didn’t represent physical strength and power or entertainment. The message to young black youth was: if you’re not good at sports or performing, there’s no place for you.
One stand-out comic is Lobo, the first to feature an African-American hero. It was pulled after just a handful of issues because newsagents refused to stock it. A sad indictment on less tolerant times. The exhibition also features an edition of Lois Lane comic in which Lois is transformed into a black woman for a day in order to report on the everyday racism of the times. Work like this, which was seen as progressive at the time, now raises as many questions and problems as it tries to address.
Also on display are illustrated history magazines celebrating black icons and symbols of the civil rights movement, including the black power clenched fist that adorned many a bedroom side-table in the 1970s. This is all capped off with Jon Daniel’s own superb Afro Supa Hero iconography, which adorns posters, badges and mugs available for purchase at the store.
I absolutely loved all the memorabilia on display. I felt I was peering through a time-capsule into the young Jon’s life. It brought back a nostalgia for the action figures, films and TV shows of my own childhood. I have to confess, since going to the exhibition, I have tracked down and purchased some of the action figures on display for myself.
The exhibition is a poignant evocation of childhood in a past far enough away to seem different, but near enough to still echo in the here and now. It’s a clearly affectionate and nostalgic snapshot of the past, presented with humour and grace. I grew up in the 70s and 80s and remember the open, casual racism of those times. Things have changed for the better, but there is still not fair representation of positive black role models in contemporary popular culture. This week, Lily Allen released her Hard Out Here music video to such furore, and you only need to look at the representation of black males and females on MTV to see we have a long way to go.
- Name:V&A Museum of Childhood
- Address:Cambridge Heath Rd
- Venue phone:020 8983 5200/020 8983 5235 (information line)
- Venue website:www.vam.ac.uk/moc
- Exhibition website:
- Opening hours:Daily 10am-5.45pm (last adm 5.30pm), until 9pm on the first Thur of every month (selected galleries only)
- Transport:Tube: Bethnal Green
- Event phone:020 8983 5200
- Event website:www.museumofchildhood.org.uk