As a Grenadian-Jamaican-Croydonian, it was an honour to be asked to collaborate with the Museum of Croydon (MoC) and National Portrait Gallery (NPG) on Citizen UK: Croydon’s Caribbean Influencers in my role as Croydon Poet Laureate.
Citizen UK is an NPG project that visualises migration stories from the mid-twentieth century by partnering with community organisations. NPG partnered with the MoC to explore the Caribbean wave of migration to the UK, highlighting some of the stories and influencers who have made an impact on Croydon and beyond.
I was brought into the project to write poetry alongside graphic illustrator Kyam, who would be creating the visual portraits. We were later joined by designer Abi Wright whose talents would bring the whole exhibition to life. Volunteer Citizen Researchers from Croydon were essential to the process too, as they delved into the archives and conducted oral history interviews that would be the backbone of the exhibition.
Creating the poetry for the exhibition was a whole process, as I wrote poems responding to every oral history, written interview, and archive material used. Over 30 people were included, so it was a lot of poems, and although they were short, it meant listening to oral histories, reading through interviews and archival notes to get an essence of the person and their story. As well as telling a snapshot of their stories through poetry, I wrote a number of additional poems that pulled out recurring themes in the Caribbean community.
It was important to capture key moments and words to create written portraits of each person, without you hearing their oral history or reading their interview in full – this was probably the toughest part, as there was so much richness and inspiration to take in. I was shocked by how different life was for Sheila Campbell and intrigued by how Nicholas Daley became the artist BAREFACE. I also had the privilege of interviewing Olympian Donna Fraser, and collecting an oral history from the composer (and my uncle) Ken Burton.
You read right, I had the joy of collecting oral histories too as a Citizen Researcher, which is another story in itself. I also contributed my curation skills and community knowledge to the exhibition, as well as my additional literary skills by writing the exhibition’s interpretation text, which was new territory but allowed me to develop a new skill.
The exhibition was first displayed at the MoC from Apr-Jul 2023, with three sections across two spaces inspired by Kyam’s concept, the record shop. The record shop influence fed through the initial exhibition and is a prominent part of the edited display at the NPG.
Transferring the display to the NPG allowed us to take the record store concept further by creating a soundscape, which was the brain child of NPG Producer, Alex. I was able to exercise my curatorial skills again by curating the soundscape, which I LOVED doing. I recorded some of my poems to accompany oral history clips, with music interspersed throughout. Hearing the final edited soundscape made me incredibly happy and emotional, because it flowed even better than I envisioned. I wanted the soundscape to take listeners on a journey through time while being immersed in the Caribbean-British experience, and I think it did that. I hope listeners feel it like I did.
Croydon’s Caribbean Influencers is a special exhibition that delves into history, community and people often overlooked. I learnt a huge amount about where I come from in every sense of the word. However, it also made me regret not spending enough time really speaking to and learning from my maternal grandparents while they were alive, but having the chance to interview two of their sons is a gift I will always treasure.
It’s important that we focus more on our local histories and voices of those around us, because there is a lot to be gained and so many stories to be told. NPG has set a great precedent and I hope to see more projects like this in the future – maybe I’ll have the chance to write poetry for them too.
Citizen UK: Croydon’s Caribbean Influencers is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until the 12 February.
Photo by David Parry.
About Shaniqua Benjamin
Shaniqua is a poet, writer, creative workshop facilitator, and Croydon’s first Poet Laureate. She wrote a poem especially for the 2022 One Young World Summit, read by Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Ebinehita Iyere and herself. She has been published by Ink, Sweat & Tears and Magma, as well as RRB Photobooks with her poetic text in Ameena Rojee’s photography book Crocus Valley. Shaniqua has performed at Trinity College Cambridge Black History Month Formal Dinner and as part of Apples & Snakes’ immersive spoken word show, Rallying Cry. She has facilitated workshops for Spread the Word, Central St Martins, and Total Insight Theatre.
Published: 14 November 2023