Thursday, March 12, 2009

'BLACK CHROME'

The California African American Museum in LA hosts 'Black Chrome', an exhibit featuring black motorcyclists, their bikes, and a bit of history (through April 12th, 2009).

I managed to catch it last weekend - the show is poorly advertised in the motorcycle community, and only a chance google result raised the website of the museum, which sits next to the LA Coliseum (and its stunning Robert Graham headless nude man/woman statues, which caused such controversy at the 1984 LA Olympics). The museum complex also includes an Aerospace Hall, with an SR-71 'Blackbird' plane outside - amazing.

'Black Chrome' (gotta love the name) is a mixed bag of a show - a superlative and long overdue concept, with a few real gems, but on the whole it lacks the depth needed to make a statement about motorcyclists 'of color'. The gems; I never knew that the builder of those seminal choppers in Easy Rider, Ben Hardy, is black! A claim is made that the whole extended fork style of custom motorcycle was created by Black rider/artisans - take that, nazi bikers! It all makes sense of course - who invented the 'look' and sound of Rock music, who created Jazz and Blues, who started the trend for outrageous stage outfits/antics which were parroted and expropriated by everyone else? Okay, I'm done.

But, this tidbit of information is presented on a 8" square card, between two 'Easy Rider' posters. I'm not sure if the curators really appreciate the significance of this nugget of information, and the exhibit strikes me as curious for its lack of a catalog or much background information at all. Someone is either completely unfunded, or isn't really savvy to the impact a show such as this could/should have on popular culture. They are aware, however, of the popularity of the Chopper craze, as quite a few bikes on display are new OCC-style bikes.


A Discovery Channel video on the History of the Chopper (a Jesse James project), on continuous loop, does explore the exclusion of Black riders from Chopper magazines In The Day. The video also allows 'Sugar Bear' to explain his own history of building custom bikes since the 1960's, and most significantly, mention is made of photographs of Black choppers dating back to the 1950s... and you can bet The Vintagent will pay this man a visit!

The period photos in 'Black Chrome' poorly reproduced, displayed, and explained - they speak volumes, but I truly wish the curators had spent more time exploring a world most of us don't know. Where's the sholarship on the subject? I guess it's here - hire me folks, I write cheap.

The photo above is Esvan Mosky, with his dog Koo Koo Man, on their modified BMW /2 tourer - Esvan was in show business somehow, but I'd like to learn more about this intriguing fellow.

Images of women riders are included, with a brief mention of Bessie Stringfield, founder of the Motor Maids, and a few words that women had their own motorcycles within the riding clubs, then and now. More please.

Gang and Club 'colors' are prominently displayed, including the East Bay Dragons, a still-active group I see on the road at times.

Their Drag Bike (see photos) is perhaps only intact as it had a rather serious 'issue' with the crankcases during a sprint. Oops. I love that it is presented 'as is'! Unfortunately, a 1960s Sportster is also presented thus (ie, incomplete) with no good reason other than to fill space. A nice orange metalflake Panhead makes sense, as does a beautifully pinstriped Sportster named 'My Man', owned by a woman.

My favorite Club jacket - the 'California Blazers M/C' (above); aesthetically uninspired, barring the late-model Velocette Scrambler used as their logo...cool.

In an adjacent gallery, a photographic collection of Black Panther history from 1968, shot by Howard L. Bingham for Life magazine, had these images which I thought relevant; 'The Man' on his Harley Police Special, looking rather unhappily at the photographer! The lower pic shows the Panthers miming a firing squad at the cop - ouch. These photos inadvertently give a hint of the relationship which must have existed between the East Bay Dragons and the Oakland P.D.

I'm also curious about the Dragon's relationship with the Hell's Angels chapter in Oakland, founded by the notorious Sonny Barger; arguably their home base during the 60s and certainly the Angel's most significant locale at the time, especially with Hunter S. Thompson's book exploring his 'difficult' time investigating the club for the book 'Hell's Angels'.


If you get a chance to see the exhibit, let me know what you think.

The black&white period photographs from the 'Black Chrome' exhibit are used here by kind permission of Na'il 'Shayk' Karim, publisher of The Black Biker magazine and Breezin on Two Wheels. Shayk painstakingly collected these photographs from family members of the subjects, and the photos were licensed exclusively to Shayk.

12 comments:

Affer said...

Wow! In its own little way, this exhibition seems to me to be a really important piece of social history, and I echo your comment "where's the scholarship?". What a find - fascinating photos and really well written up by you, too.

Self Edge said...

Paul,

I'm a bit confused at this line which you wrote:
"I never knew that the builder of those seminal choppers in Easy Rider, Ed Hardy, is black!"

Ed Hardy?
Am i missing something?
Ed Hardy the white tattoo artist?
Is this a different person during the same period with the same exact name?

vintagent said...

No, it's BEN Hardy - sorry about the earlier mis-print. And I'd never heard of him, even with all the hoopla about the Captain America motorcycle and it's many recent reproductions...

Anonymous said...

Paul:

You do us all proud. You web site was forwarded to me and is inspiring.
In honor of that most exceptional woman Anke-Eve I will name my bike Eve…fitting in many ways given my desire to resurrect this fine machine.

Kind regards,

Will R

Chris Bartlett said...

Cool article Paul! Ben Hardy apparently had a shop in L.A. at 1168 E. Florence. Today that shop is an auto rebuild shop.
More info here:
http://tinyurl.com/bw2evo

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
just had the way to your excellent site pointed via a message board I use.Very impressive mate,have bookmarked it and will have a browse in my free time.
Message board was on a site called ww.realclassic.co.uk ,nice little site,take a look and maybe you could put a link to it on yours,
beat wishes,
Dave (Plymouth,England)

Frank Sider said...

Hi Paul
so happy you enjoyed the exhibit.
I wish i could have seen that.
thanks for your fantastic post
Frank

vespaden said...

This would be a perfect fit for the Oakland Museum. I wonder if they are even aware of it...

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
Just for some sincere flattery, I have to say that your blog is superior to any of the bike magazines to which I subscribe. (My second favorite, because of its quirky nature and because of the rusty state of many of the featured bikes, is Real Classic). At the risk of sounding pompous I think that I am a fair judge having, in a previous life, been a history Ph.D. candidate at Columbia and having attended university for a year in the UK at the tail end of the Rocker era. Your writing is extremely perceptive by any standard and I encourage you to, at some point, organize it into a book.
Regards, Marc R

Anonymous said...

hey, loved the post on the museum piece (3-12-09) that took place earlier in the year. I was wondering if they offered some sort of coffee table book that had those photos or other vintage photos of black riders, or if you knew of one that I could purchase. The old school photos are amazing.


Thanks,

B*Luxe

Mannie said...

For those of you interested in Black biker culture y'all might also want to check out "Brooklyn Kings" by Martin Dixon. Excellent book.

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