23rd February, 1981, New Musical Express
SKINHEAD ART! If That’s Not A Contradiction
At the Swarthymore Centre in Leeds a cosy Community Arts Centre,
“skinhead artist” Michael Furbank is holding a one man exhibition and
performance based on skinhead images.
A 19 year old former art student and Buddhist – he’s quick to note
the similarities between Buddhists and skinheads, the shaven heads and
austere trappings – Furbank arrived at his current skinhead style via a
rejection of the excessive dressing-up that went with punks.
“From all the cults from teddy-boys to punk-rock the skinhead image
is the image which hasn’t been commercialised,” he explains. “It’s very
difficult for people like Zandra Rhodes to do fashionable updates of Dr.
Martens boots and Levi trousers. Because of it’s basic purity, the
classic look of the skinhead, I’ve adopted that as my image.”
“I wouldn’t call myself a skinhead — I’m really acting the part of
being a skinhead. Basically I’m an observer.”
Possibly because of their ingrained belligerence, the skinheads have
never really been observed too deeply: again, their monochrome image
doesn’t make for good colour supplement material. And yet, they’re
fundamentally different from all other youth culture tribes in at least
one respect: whereas other tribal groups attempt to say that each member
of that tribe is an individual, the skinhead tribe represents the
opposite pole of regimented uniformity (Sham Army, anyone?).
Individuality seem ruthlessly minimised, subsumed under the collective
Furbank sees this, quite bluntly, as rooted in sexual repression:
“One of the points I’m trying to make is that the only way blokes can
touch and come into contact with each others’ bodies without fear of
being labelled ‘gay’ is through violence; it’s part of the sexual
repression which has caused a lot of violence and frustration.” To a
large extent, he’s undoubtedly right. The original, late ’60s skinheads
emerged and flourished in the East End of London and the industrialised
parts of the North and Midlands, at a time when hedonism and
permissiveness (real or imagined) were being touted by the media as the
order of the day. It seems more than feasible that the conflict between
(on the one hand) the strict, Victorian working-class attitude to sex,
and (on the other hand) the unattainable — because essentially
middle-class — liberal ideals, could have given rise to the skinheads’
peculiar form of conservatism. (Remember The Family Way?)
Furbank’s venture titled Lament Of The Terraces (Skinaphobia) —
occupies two rooms, one for the exhibition and one for the performance.
The exhibition consists of a series of photographs of desolate northern
industrial wastelands and figurative studies of latter day skins, some
taking the form of posed tableaus which illustrate the links between
skins, sex and violence, and a series of monochrome prints of
heavily-stylised skinhead stances, technically similar to the 2-Tone
figures. Furbank — no fool he — has had a load of T-shirts printed
with these figures. Business doesn’t appear too brisk, which is odd,
because they are quite fetching, in an austere kind of way. Furbank says
they’re rather popular amongst the large BM/NF contingent in Leeds, a
state of affairs which he doesn’t particularly like.
“My own active involvement against the NF is through exhibition like
this,” he says, and indeed, it’s easy to see how more reactionary skins
might feel insulted by his work.
The performance is less successful than the exhibition, mainly
because of its obviousness and semi-confrontational nature. Indeed, its
narrative content makes it more of a play, or a mime, than a piece of
performance art. Furbank crawls out of a large plastic bag (womb), and
to the accompaniment of relevant chunks of period-piece music (‘Blue
Suede Shoes’, ‘Green Onions’, ‘Anarchy In The UK’, etc.) tries on the
trappings of various subcultures discarding each with disgust, with the
exception of the skinhead gear. Clad in this, he regards himself in a
Large piece of aluminium foil (self-image), simulates masturbation with a
Doc Martens boot, declaims loudly about silence, and eventually throws
himself at the sheet of foil (suicide).
Despite the shortcomings of the performance and the dubious
pseudo-poetical statements which Furbank needlessly surrounds his work
there was more than a germ of promise in the event. For to risk the
wrath of a peer-group — especially ones a famously violent as the
skinheads — in honest investigation of their psychological roots, takes
great courage. To do so by offering positive alternatives to mindless
violence — set to creation against destruction, as it were — takes
courage and integrity.
*Mick Furbank had a poem on the 1982 United Skins album. Suffice to say it’s pants.