Lewis Achiampong disrupts his loved ones archive to illustrate the particular proliferation of homogenising racism in popular culture

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As a child, Achiampong was disturbed by the golliwog mascot on Robertson’s jam packaging. Their ongoing series of collages help remind us of this harmful background, and how it permeates modern culture

Back in 2007, Lewis Achiampong began the process of digitising his family archive. At the time, the British Ghanaian designer was thinking about his connection with racism through popular tradition and the capitalist system. Growing up in the 80s and earlier 90s, he distinctly remembers the packaging of a model of jam his mother used to buy: Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade. “I wasn’t a legitimate fan of it – I didn’t really like the items, ” he says, “but what I really didn’t like about it was these weird bridal party that had these black faces, and these characters were always smiling with weird outfits on. ”

Achiampong began to research the Robertson’s brand. He found that just before World War We, the company’s acting CEO was travelling through the US ALL, where he noticed children having fun with black rag dolls. Referred to as golliwog or golly, these were racist caricatures of Black colored people, characterised by white colored eyes, exaggerated lips and frizzy hair. The dolls are thought to be inspired by the blackface tradition in American Minstrel shows – a popular theatrical overall performance in which white people embodied derogatory stereotypes of Dark people.  

“Out of that pops the Robertson’s golly, ” says Achiampong. The image of the golliwog was first demonstrated on Robertson’s packaging in 1910. Shockingly, the “mascot” was only discontinued in 2002. “The reason these people retired it wasn’t because of any kind of outcry – which there was at the time – but they did it to move with the instances: the same reason why they put it there in the first place. ”

Glyth Series 2 #2 (2018) From Glyth ©  Larry Achiampong.

Learning about this history, Achiampong embarked on the collage project, titled Glyth. The artist replaces the heads of his loved ones with black circles, bearing no features other than a couple of bright red lips. “I know everyone in the images, my grandmother is up here, my cousin, my oldest brother, ” says Achiampong, who also appears in the collages himself. “The fronts of every Black person inside these images is obscured, covered with a motif that certain would relate directly to those of the golliwog. ” Within disrupting his own family store, and reducing the identities of people who are so important in order to him, Achiampong illustrates this that homogenising racist stereotypes inflict.  

The collection is ongoing, and a choice of the images are currently on show as part of Achiampong’s first major solo exhibition with Turner Contemporary in Margate. On display until 19 Summer 2022, the show includes Achiampong’s first feature-length movie, Wayfinder , as well as his ambitious multi-disciplinary project Relic Traveller. Combining performance, audio, moving picture and prose, the display addresses issues around migration, nationhood, and post-colonialism.

“The normalisation of something that is quite violent is embedded in the very institutions that individuals grew up with, but it is just been shut apart like a dirty secret that will spews out every right now and again”

Integer #3 (2015) From Glyth ©  Larry Achiampong.

Ordinal #1 (2016), From Glyth ©  Larry Achiampong.

Achiampong is continuously surprised on how many people are unaware of a brief history of minstrel culture as well as the golliwog. “The UK is good at sweeping things under the carpet, ” he says. “One of the interesting things, when it comes to responses to [ Glyth ]… is people who state ‘this shouldn’t exist’, ‘this is racist, ridiculous, heinous’. ”

There is a turned irony in how a firm can continue to sell products regardless of its racist past, but reminders of this history are criticised. “I think what goes on with the work is that it connections into the emotional stimuli of individuals, ” says Achiampong. “I’m talking particularly about whitened people in relation to a painful stress that everybody has been made to participate in. But reminding [them] that this has been on the pleasure and the benefit of light people, and to the detriment of Black people. ”

Achiampong has also received responses, generally from older white-colored people, who have said that golliwogs weren’t meant to be harmful – that they were playful as well as a “thing of the past”. But the artist points out that this lifestyle continues today, by style brands like Gucci, for example , which removed a sweater from its selection in 2019 after it was criticised designed for resembling blackface. “The normalisation of something that is quite violent is embedded in the extremely institutions that we grew up along with, ” says Achiampong. “But it hasn’t been given the space to actually be spoken about. It is just been kind of close away like a dirty key that spews out each now and again.

“This is an actual heritage that is contemporary, ” he continues. “Do the research, and you will find that minstrel plus golliwog culture is something which is very contemporary… I’m having a wider conversation about problems that are very complicated, and very a lot sewn into the fabric associated with not just this nation, however the world over. ”

Glyth is definitely on show as part of Lewis Achiampong’s solo exhibition Wayfinder, at Turner Contemporary in Margate, UK, until 19 June 2022.

Marigold Warner

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Marigold Warner joined the British Diary Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. The girl studied English Literature and History of Art at the College of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Diary.

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