In this major public exhibition, Cephas Williams – artist, photographer, speaker, activist and campaigner – poses a timely and poignant question: ‘What does it mean to be Black, living in the UK?’
Portrait of Black Britain is me taking control of my narrative – asking other Black people to join me in the reintroduction of our presence and stories in the 21st century.’Cephas Williams
Portrait of Black Britain is a major public exhibition at Manchester Arndale that will profile a range of Black people living in the UK today, the contributions they make and the roles they play in society. Created at a time when candid conversations and dialogue about the Black community are taking a long-overdue centre stage, Portrait of Black Britain centralises Black-led representation on what it means to be Black in the UK right now. It is a reminder of the beauty in identity and diversity, the fact that the Black community is not a monolith. It is a moment to give the spotlight to the community to which this conversation belongs. And it is a powerful and positive affirmation that Black Lives Matter: not just in news stories about trauma or tragedy, nor just during Black History Month – but every day.
Conceived and created by Cephas Williams, creator of 56 Black Men, Letter to Zion and the Black British Network, Portrait of Black Britain doesn’t focus only on high-profile people and success stories – it captures as many people from as wide a range of society as possible. These are not all faces you’ll recognise, but they are indelible images you won’t forget.
This is the first phase of a project that will ultimately lead to Cephas Williams building the largest collection of photographic portraits of Black British people ever created. We’re thrilled to be bringing it to you this summer.
A community project with vast scope, Portrait of Black Britain makes a difference to everybody. “This is me taking control of my narrative,” says Williams, “and asking other Black people to join me in the re-introduction of our presence and stories in the 21st century.
Manchester Arndale, 1-18 July, free, no ticket required
Williams told The Guardian “I aim for this to be the largest portrait series of Black British people ever taken before,” Commissioned by Manchester international festival, the first set of images feature the faces of Manchester residents who responded to Williams’s invitation to take part. “This interest in making Black people visible is not just to see their face, but for us also to hear their voice,” he says. “A lot of our contributions, a lot of achievements, and actually our very existence can sometimes go unnoticed”.
Driving all Williams’s ambitious, large-scale projects is a sense of real urgency. In 2018, Williams unveiled 56 Black Men: billboard-sized portraits of accomplished Black men, all wearing black hoodies. In the words of David Lammy MP, one of Williams’s subjects, it seeks “to liberate Black men from invisibility”. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 galvanised Williams further – he heard the news when he was expecting the birth of his son, shattering his hopes that his baby might be born into a world in which a Black man could walk down the street without fear. Subsequently, he published Letter to Zion for his son, outlining his vision for global dialogue, representation and equality. The same year, he developed the Black British Network, a platform for tangible change, which has drawn support from such industry giants as Sony, Clear Channel and Sainsbury’s.