Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred Exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery

Three of us stand watching monochrome footage from the 1920s, the shaky white text declaring, “Meeting of new Kindred who aim at a race of Intellectual Barbarians.” We are, I suppose, the barbarians in question. Or at least their descendants. A sneezing gaggle of Londoners, whose idea of nature is being caught without an umbrella anywhere outside the M25. The Kibbo Kift Kindred was supposed to provide an alternative to lives like ours: the coddled and violent children of the industrialised West. Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred is the Whitechapel Gallery’s exhibition of the British movement’s photographs, handicrafts, and costume design. Active in the 1920s and 30s, the Kibbo Kift developed a philosophy which embraced nature, world peace, international brotherhood, and elevated camping to a spiritual exercise. Their name was taken from an ancient Cheshire dialect and meant ‘proof of great strength.’ No one, it seemed, paused to consider the acronym.

John Hargrave, the driving force behind the Kindred, has, wonderfully, been described as an “artist, illustrator, cartoonist, copywriter, Boy Scout Commissioner, lexicographer, inventor, author and psychic healer.​The movement he helped create was similarly eccentric. There is staccato black and white footage of young men dressed in mock-medieval costume swinging censers and marching past campfires. Women dance and tumble down to the earth. The film gives some indication of how outlandish the Kindred appeared in the 1920s.The suspicion was in part because of their minimalist exercise gear. George Orwell, rather unfairly, dismissed them as “sex maniacs.” Nevertheless, the movement managed to attract suffragettes, scientists, and a handful of prominent supporters. On the screen, more text announces that, “Mr. H.G. Wells is a member of this camping fraternity, who combine the ideals of Scientists and Red Indians.” Whitechapel’s exhibition shows how liberally the Kindred borrowed from other eras and cultures. Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, ancient Egyptian, and Native American influences are all present. As with so many other esoteric movements, accuracy was often more impediment than inspiration. There is a yellow ankh alongside a bird that could have escaped from papyrus. In the display case there are photos of garishly decorated tents, and several tooth-clenching sentences describing the group’s intention to emulate“the honest injun.” Not everything has aged well. The end result is an occult Boy Scouts, punctuated by utopianism and the cultural arrogance of Empire.
The first object on display is a replica of the skull of Pitdown Man, who was venerated by the Kindred. Supposedly a missing link between apes and man, in later years the fossil was discovered to be a hoax. It’s a suitable beginning to the exhibition, which often veers towards a sort of tragic silliness. All of the objects demonstrate the group’s preoccupation with symbol and ritual. A collection of badges are entitled ‘Lodge Sigils.’ Sigil was Hargrave’s terms to describe symbols designating specialisms for the Kindred and had magic connotations. The design is reminiscent of the Boy Scouts, with an added measure of blunt modernism. Most distinctive is the ‘sigil’ designed for Kindred photographer Angus McBean. There is his eye, integrated into a camera body, the grey broken by dramatic interludes of red, white, and black. The ceremonial tabards, hung from the wall, are also striking. One is almost entirely in gold, a round central badge embroidered with leaf, eye, and wave motifs. Most elaborate of all is the Herald’s Surcoat, divided into plains of clashing colours, the central red lens “to represent the Herald’s parted lips” and the other two panels the “elemental symbols for the tree of knowledge and the water of life.” Hargrave worked in advertising and this is often apparent in his colourful, obtuse designs.

The objects photograph well, their heavy lines bullish enough to survive the lens. In person, however, many of the design elements verge on gaudy. The Kindred attracted a number of talented arts and crafts teachers and there is undeniable skill in much of the woodworking. This is particularly true of the fine collection of totemic staves, one topped by an imposing raven; a bard, lyre, and coiled serpent on another. The staves have been positioned next to a ceiling high photo of a Kindred ritual. As with many of the objects present, the staves were clearly intended to be used in ceremony. The question is whether they are equally evocative for someone not involved in the Kindred’s idiosyncratic world of symbolism? The answer, at least for me, is no. There is an enormous hand-tooled leather book on a stand decorated with a single pine tree. Both the scale and skill are impressive but little else. The objects made by the Kindred need their history to survive. So what exactly are these handicrafts to an audience outside the faith? Art, historical
curiosities, a lesson in cultural misapprehension? I found myself wondering whether they were in a gallery because there is no obvious home elsewhere. It’s not clear that art should be a place where failed social movements go to live, making it a catchall for history’s noteworthy rejects. But looking more closely at the exhibition, it is easier to imagine why a gallery might be appropriate. The eerie gravity of photographs by Angus McBean, give some idea of how the Kindred saw themselves. There are starkly shadowed photographs of young men posing on hillocks and fields. One image of Hargrave wearing a white fox mask has echoes of shamanism. Hundreds of people were convinced that this was a way to escape the horrors the recent past. If there was genuine artistry in the Kindred, it was perhaps in Hargrave’s complex and occasionally self-aggrandizing vision of a better world. It is easy, and possibly tempting, to dismiss the Kibbo Kift as an oddity. Proto-hippies with
one foot in an imaginary past. The strength of the exhibition is that this doesn’t happen. Instead it is a reminder of what the Kindred were fighting for and, more importantly, what they were trying to escape: the corrupt, industrialised society that had, only a few years earlier, imploded so catastrophically in the mud of Flanders and Ypres. There was the need for drastic change, which, for the Kindred, became a spiritual endeavour. The problems that they identified remain, a memento from our collective past. On the wall there is a quote from The Confessions of the Kibbo Kift: “There is something here with a beating heart which, by its own tiny effort, is calling men to repent, to turn away from the folly of a devastating materialistic age, and to live. Is that worthless – is that nothing?”

© Photograph: Angus McBean/Stanley Dixon Collection/Donlon Books

10 October 2015 – 13 March 2016
Gallery 4, Free Entry

Whitechapel Gallery