Notebook Revelations: Juno Gemes’ portrait of James Baldwin

About Juno Gemes/ Juno Gemes: The Movement for Civil Rights in Australia, 1971 to 2010 / Canticle for the Bicentennial Dead by Robert Adamson

As people dance with joy and celebrate on Black Lives Matter Plaza now that the US election has been called for Biden/Harris, Rochford Street Review is honoured to publish for the first time in an Australian publication, Juno Gemes’ portrait of James Baldwin who was a leader in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. We also have the privilege of sharing Juno’s discussion of a quote from James Baldwin that has been with her for 40 years, and how the iconic image came about.

Notebook Revelations: I had the following quote pinned onto the cork board in my studio for 40 years until just a few years ago. It is now in a one of my notebooks in The National Library of Australia.

We know that we, the Blacks, and not only we, the Blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit. We know that the fruits of this system have been ignorance, despair, and death, and we know that the system is doomed because the world can no longer afford it – if, indeed, it ever could have. And we know that, for the perpetuation of this system, we have been mercilessly brutalized, and have been told nothing but lies, lies about our kinsmen and our past, about love, life and death, so that both soul and body have been bound in hell.

The enormous revolution in Black consciousness which has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning of the end of America. Some of us, white and black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name.

If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own – which it is – and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.

Therefore: peace.

James Baldwin wrote these words to Angela Y. Davis in a letter that became the introduction to If They Come In The Morning: Voices of Resistance, a collection of writings about U.S. legal trials and prisons which Davis edited and published in 1971. Contributors included Black Panther Party members and the Soledad Brothers and as Davis’ first book, it contains description of her experiences in prison.

This quote had been my companion, pinned onto the cork board in my various studios in Sydney, London, Hawkesbury River, over the last 40 years. The original of the text is now in my notebook in the Collection of The National Library of Australia. It’s not a text that I’ve have seen quoted elsewhere, yet it spoke powerfully to me of The Movement for Aboriginal Rights in Australia in 1970s and 1980s as well as the Civil Rights Struggle in the USA. James Baldwin was a leader in the American civil rights movement and knew about the movement in Australia — we discussed these connections in our conversation during the portrait session on the rooftop of Londons’ Athenaeum Hotel.

It was my great good fortune to line up to meet James Baldwin after he had given a powerful talk at the ICA (The Institute of Contemporary Art) in London in 1976. The only other Australian there was Roberta Sykes. At the ICA, Baldwin spoke about the power of words used in the St James Bible where ‘black’ was used to conjure up notions of ‘fear, terror and downfall’ while ‘white’ was used to invoke notions of ‘purity, goodness and salvation’. With agility and wit, he woke the audience up to what a responsible use of language would be.

After the talk James sat graciously in the café, with his minder Joe behind him, a cool cat wearing shades, winkle-picker shoes and a pork-pie hat, to chat to his admirers. When my turn came, I told him how inspiring I found his talk and introduced myself as a young photographer with the Movement for Aboriginal Rights in Australia. He said he wanted an update, as he was aware of it from Civil Rights correspondence.

Being a bold young photographer, I asked if I could have a portrait session with him. ‘Sure come to my hotel at 3pm tomorrow. I’ll fit you in between the photographers from The Times and The Observer, okay?’ he said wryly.

Arriving at the elegant Athenaeum Hotel the next day, I found Joe was there to meet me in the lobby and we had a drink together. James arrived soon after, immaculately attired in a black Yves Saint Lawrent safari suit, with a gleaming white mother of pearl Tiger pin on his jacket. ‘I’ve just been in Green Park [to be photographed] by the guy from The Observer. Juno have you ever seen the view from the rooftop of this hotel?’ ‘No, what an interesting idea’, I answered. Soon we were on the grungy rooftop with only the sounds of the city humming in the distance below. It was a gloriously private space for the ensuing hour of conversation and portraiture. I could hardly believe my luck.

Occasionally I’d suggest a position or direct him so the light came his way. It was relaxed, warm session, the conversation was everything really. I wanted to convey his genius and grace in the portraits. With respect and warmth I said to him cheekily “ You are the Prince of all you survey” He looked out across the roof parapet. He smiled wryly, looking hopefully out across the London skyline. I too wondered if his vision would be realised in his lifetime.

In that moment I had my portrait.

 – Juno Gemes

This image has previously been exhibited at:

  • Hidden Histories (solo show) The Pius Library, Saint Louis University, Saint Louis US, March 21 to 27 March 2015
  • Portrait, A Smith Gallery, Johnson City, Texas USA, Curated by Elizabeth Avedon, June 2019 (online exhibition) 
  • Juno Gemes : The Quiet Activist – A Survey Exhibition 1979 – 2019, Macquarie University, Curated by Rhonda Davis and Kate Hargrave, Sydney Australia, 10 May to 28 June 2019.

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About Juno Gemes/ Juno Gemes: The Movement for Civil Rights in Australia, 1971 to 2010 / Canticle for the Bicentennial Dead by Robert Adamson

 

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