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‘It’s more important than an Obama moment’

BLACK EXCELLENCE: From left to right, Terry Jervis, Charlie Casely-Hayford, Shevelle Dynott, Simon Frederick, Noel Clarke, Ekow Eshun

A HOST of black celebrities and influential figures came together for the official launch of Black is the New Black at the National Portrait Gallery last night.

The exhibition of 38 portraits of high achieving Black Britons, the gallery’s largest acquisition of portraits of people of African Caribbean heritage, has been hailed as a history-making moment.

Simon Frederick, the photographer behind the iconic display, which was produced in conjunction with his BBC documentary of the same name, told The Voice: “I think it’s more important than an Obama moment because when Obama became president in the United States that was one man’s achievement...But this is all of our achievements.

"It’s the first time that an institution, be it the BBC or the National Portrait’s the first time they have said, ‘look, we acknowledge the contribution that the African Caribbean community have made to British society and we would like to celebrate that’.”

Speaking at the launch party event held last night, Frederick told guests, which included sitters Dizzee Rascal, Trevor McDonald, Charlene White, Chuka Umunna and Maggie Aderin-Pocock, that he wished his mother, who first took him to the National Portrait Gallery aged 13, was around to see it all.

“It’s a pity that she couldn’t be here tonight to see this, she’d be very, very proud,” he said.

Frederick described the exhibition as somewhat bittersweet. He said: “I think that it should have happened a long time ago but my hope is that now it’s happened, it’s a catalyst so that this becomes a continued thing.”

CAPTURING BLACK HISTORY: Simon Frederick's portrait of Naomi Campbell (Image: Simon Frederick)

The artist, photographer and filmmaker does not himself feature among the portraits but he implied that could change one day.

“Everyone from Thandie Newton, Tinie, Ekow Eshun, there’s been a lot of people lobbying for me to have my portrait here and I’ve resisted the call because I never made this project to be about me, I made the project to be about the achievements of people who are really achieving great things and I know what people will say, I know, I know, but yeah, maybe,” he said.

In response to a question from an audience member about what the most surprising thing for him was, Frederick recalled actor David Harewood’s mental health revelation.

He said: “One of the surprising moments for me on Black is the New Black is when I’m sitting there, I’m interviewing everyone and then David Harewood turns around and says, 'well, yeah, I was sectioned' and basically went on to explain to all of us what the mental health effects are of being treated as other. And that was a seminal moment because I think it woke the nation up.”

Beverley Knight, who participated in the Q&A panel with Noel Clarke, praised Frederick’s work and the significance of the display.

She said: “As far as I’m concerned, being in this building it’s as much our place as anybody else’s in Britain.

“We have been part and parcel and fabric of Britain long before Windrush, this isn’t like we’ve just come here 70 years ago. This goes back...we absolutely should be here and I am so chuffed...and I wish my dad could have been here because the significance of Black is the New Black is not lost on me at all, it’s so important.”

HISTORIC: Noel Clarke stands in front of some of the portraits currently on display

Noel Clarke told The Voice earlier in the day it was important to have a celebration of black talent and black achievers to show that we have contributed significantly to this country for 100s of years.

He said: “I think it’s important to show that there are people that are high achievers in their fields. [It’s] something that I’m an avid supporter of. And honestly, I was honoured to be asked. I’m glad that some of my peers think that I’ve achieved enough to be included.

“It’s a permanent collection – that’s a massive step – and I hope it’s a collection that grows. I think the important thing is that in 50 years it’s not just our pictures but when they decide, ‘oh, let’s bring out that collection again’, it can fill three rooms.”

English National Ballet dancer Shevelle Dynott echoed Clarke’s sentiments. He said that he was taken aback when approached by Frederick to be a part of the project but had to jump on the opportunity straight away.

Dynott said: “For it to be here in the permanent archive, hopefully my great-great-great grandchildren can come and see it.

“I feel like this exhibition will hopefully be able to bring in a lot of other people who probably wouldn’t come to the gallery....the young generation that come in or whatever generation that comes in can actually be proud of something that is very, very special.”

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