Memories of The Boxer

There are pools of memories that we all share, they are our stories and images, they describe artifacts, food, drink, symbols, traditions, and music. And there are our personal memories that often overlap into collective memories.

My work is very much about memory, the shared memories of my white working class background and my own personal memories.

The Boxer has as it’s central image a cigarette card picturing the Afro American boxer, Joe Louis. Cigarette cards were really popular in the early half of the twentieth century.

In every pack of cigarettes a card came free with an image on the front and information on the reverse. They came in collectible sets – film and sporting stars, railway engines, planes, historical events, flowers, fish and when smokers had a full set they could get an album to keep them in. When my granddad died he left a huge collection of ‘fag cards’ and I have memories of my mum and I sorting them into sets. So as artifacts they hold a special affinity for me. The picture of Joe Louis is one of a set of fifty cards called Boxing Personalities.

Joe Louis was the most significant American boxer in the nineteen thirties. At a time of segregation, racism and Jim Crow laws he gave African Americans a sense of pride. His most famous fights were with the German Max Schmeling, who was Hitler’s favourite boxer. Consequently, Louis became a symbol in the struggle against Fascism. Schmeling, who incidentally wasn’t a Nazi, won the first contest in 1936, but two years later, just after the annexation of Austria by the Nazis, Louis beat Schmeling in a fight that was seen by the world as American democracy against German totalitarianism. Throughout America, black people were ecstatic, as Max Schmeling wrote later:

‘As we drove through Harlem, there were noisy, dancing crowds. Bands had left the nightclubs and bars and were playing and dancing on the sidewalks and streets. The whole area was filled with celebration, noise, and saxophones, continuously punctuated by the calling of Joe Louis’ name’.

The Boxer holds some of my own personal memories but also connects to a past I have only read about, and the collective memories and struggles of people who had a very different experience of life from mine.

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