Review: Return of the Rudeboy at Somerset House

The Return of the Rudeboy captures a contemporary snapshot of the Rudeboy culture with a display of photographic portraits, art installations and recreations in order to demonstrate that a subcultural identity with roots in 1950s Jamaica is still alive and well in 21st century Britain.  With their credentials as photographer and creative director respectively, the curators Dean Chalkley and Harris Elliot have created an exhibition based upon a shared interest in menswear, subcultural style and contemporary consumption.

The first room of the exhibition featuring piled up suitcases as photographic frames

The exhibition is made up of five rooms that allow the visitor to wander through and tentatively identify with the Rudeboy subculture, be it through historical context, stylistic devices, musical tastes, urban locations or consumer choices.   In the first room, you are faced with several sculptures made from stacked suitcases, some of which are open to reveal contemporary portraits of ‘rudies’. These luggage balancing acts make reference to the immigration of many from the West Indies and Africa to Britain in the second half of the 20th century, thus sowing the seed for the Rudeboy style amongst young men and women in urban centres across the country.  On entering the second room, you find yourself amongst a lookbook of Rudeboy attires, modelled by invisible mannequins, many of which have been put together by Sam Lambert, an Angolan artist/tailor and a self confessed Rudeboy.  There is also an installation by the artist Catherine Jane Willis, whose handmade boxes draw attention to the influence of the ‘Sunday best’ look that underpins Rudeboy dress.

Sartorial creations by Sam Lambert, Art comes First

The third room is the recreation of a barbershop that is in use twice a week and where you can experience the literal buzz by watching Johnnie Sapong groom visitors in the Rudeboy style.  The fourth room focuses on the contemporary consumption associated with the subculture, epitomised by a ‘stepper’ bike designed specifically for the exhibition.  The final room, with speakers piled up on one another to create a soundsystem, refers to the important role that music plays in connecting and creating a subcultural identity.  An extensive soundtrack choreographed by the curators and played throughout the exhibition reinforces this.

Johnnie Sapong in the barbershop recreation within the exhibition

What all the rooms have in common are vivid photographic portraits of individuals from across the UK representing what Chalkley and Elliot see as the best stylistic examples of current Rudeboy culture.  Interestingly, these are both women and men, young and old, black and white.  However, unless you are familiar with these people already, the exhibition offers you very little in the way of information other than their name, displayed on a small label under each portrait.

Portraits of contemporary Rudeboys from across the UK photographed in East and West London location

It would seem that in this exhibition just their title is enough to establish their credentials as modern Rudeboy aristocracy.  It is the absence of information regarding biography, locale or motivation that meant I found myself in a three-dimensional compendium of Rudeboy tastemakers, supported by a cast of artistic displays that failed to shed any new light on how and why such a subcultural identity may still be important today.  Many of the figures on display, for example, draw our attention to the influence of globalisation, the African diaspora and post-colonialism on the continuity of Rudeboy style yet you will only discover this if you read around, and not in, the exhibition.

I also wondered why the exhibition wasn’t called ‘Rudie’, another term for ‘rudeboy’, given the fact that today’s Rudeboy could be female and/or no longer a young boy.   The dominant demographic of my fellow visitors seemed to be fathers with children who showed little sartorial interest in identifying with Rudeboys today.  The only person who appeared to embrace the style that day was a mature black woman whose genuine enthusiasm for the images and the culture bubbled out of her dress and comments as she walked around the exhibition.  This delight was noted by other visitors who proffered compliments on her Rudeboy attire.

One of several portraits of female Rudeboys

The curators suggest that the exhibition is an introduction to the subculture, in terms of its attitude and appearance.  I agree that the imposing portraits certainly command the viewer to accept that who they see are the legitimate inheritors of a stylistic lineage.  I also agree with the curators that this exhibition attempts to fill a gap in the market if only to persuade you that your recent attempt to dress like Janelle Monae or purchasing Mr Hare’s shoes are so culturally important as to be economically justified.  However, for me, this is less an introduction and more of an attempt to retain a hold on subcultural capital by re-fashioning the past into an array of consumable baroque objects that tell us who is in and who is out.

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