‘It’s an honour and its nerve-racking’: Artist commissioned to represent Rastafari community in first exhibition of its kind

An artist has been commissioned to represent the Rastafari community in a groundbreaking exhibition on black music, which will open at the British Library next month.

Lorna Jean-Charles, 53, who lives near the Van Gogh House in Stockwell, has just finished her last of six mosaics to represent the Rastafari contribution to music through faith, spirituality and their fight for justice.

The mosaics will be displayed in the British Library for the first major exhibition of its kind to delve into 500 years of black music in Britain, Beyond the Bassline.

Ms Jean-Charles said: “It’s an honour and a privilege, and it’s also nerve-racking.

“I am one of the first – if not the first – black Rastafari women to have their artwork exhibited at the British Library. I just hope I can do it justice.”

Although she would describe herself as a naturalist, Ms Jean-Charles said she has been “linked” to the religion since she was 11-years-old.

One of the mosaics which will feature in the Beyond the Baseline exhibition next month at the British Library (Picture: Lorna Jean-Charles)

She said: “When I discovered Rastafari music I discovered the teachings.

“I take the good teachings and apply it to my life. I eat naturally, keep my thoughts progressive and positive and work to make a better change for myself and the community.

“It’s also about being family-orientated and keeping my connection with Africa and my ancestors.”

Ms Jean-Charles said the exhibition could be a turning point in challenging the stereotypes Rastafarians face.

She said: “It’s really important that we do this – Rastafari communities have always had an image of weed and reggae.

“I think this will make people understand that we work in and contribute to their communities. 

Lorna Jean-Charles adding the finishing touches to a mosaic at the last workshop on Monday (Picture: Lorna Jean-Charles)

“We were the first group of people who were pushing a vegan lifestyle – what we call Ital lifestyle.”

Ms Jean-Charles was selected to create the works after she volunteered with the Rastafari Movement UK (RMUK).

Starting in February, she set up weekly workshops alongside mosaic artist Kes Young, and invited people in Lambeth to take part.

Ms Jean-Charles said: “We’ve been holding the workshops in Bee Urban at the back of St Agnes place which is a real Rastafari landmark.”

St Agnes Place in Kennington became a well-known Rastafarian enclave in the 1970s and 80s, complete with its own temple. It was even visited by Bob Marley on several occasions.

Thought to be London’s longest-running squat, those who lived in St Agnes Place resisted eviction for more than 30 years, until 2007, when it was demolished by Lambeth council.

The mosaics represent the Rastafari contribution to music through faith, spirituality and their fight for justice (Picture: Lorna Jean-Charles)

Ms Jean Charles said: “Not everyone who joined the sessions had Rastafari links, but some had relatives.

“We had creative makers and artists, as well as people who just wanted to try it out.

“One woman told me coming to the workshops had taken her out of her isolation and another said it felt like therapy – everyone has enjoyed and appreciated it.”

The sessions each ran from 10am until 1pm, but Ms Jean-Charles said she would often take the mosaics home and work into the evening.

She said it had been “rewarding” to see the pieces “come alive in a different dimension”.

Beyond the Bassline at the British Library opens to the public on April 26. The exhibition has been created in partnership with the Black Music Research Unit, part of the University of Westminster’s Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media.

Pictured top: Lorna Jean-Charles (back, fourth from the left) with her workshop group during the last session on Monday (Picture: Lorna Jean-Charles)

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