In March 1985, in the street-smart interlude between the New Romantics and Grunge, The Face published a fashion story featuring a posse of beautiful black and mixed-race models, among them a 14-year-old Naomi Campbell. Shot by Jamie Morgan and styled by Ray Petri, the article introduced readers to a new magpie aesthetic known as Buffalo, a look as raw as its name.
Coolly extravagant and subversive, it combined Native American headdresses and Savile Row suits with bovver boys’ flight jackets and Doc Martens. ‘It was street-real,’ recalls Vogue editor Edward Enninful, ‘informed by the legacy of punk but also the unique alchemy of Ladbroke Grove.’ In 1988 the singer Neneh Cherry exploded into the charts, fixing the attitude in her breakout hit, Buffalo Stance.
Central to the movement was the Burmese-British model and artist Barry Kamen (1963-2015), who, with his older brother Nick (1962-2021), came to define the Eighties British subculture. Kamen was the youngest of eight children born to Burmese parents in Harlow in Essex during a time of racial unrest. As a mixed-race child, he grew up fast, learning how to appear tougher than his size, and this persona permeated the Buffalo aesthetic.
The tough stance of Buffalo, however, was balanced by sensitivity and kindness — and these were the qualities that Kamen became known for. As his wife, the author and former model Tatiana Strauss, recalls, ‘He had such a gentle, spiritual nature and a way of giving the other person his full attention that he nearly always managed to make friends with his enemies.’ The fashion designer Stella McCartney remembers thinking ‘what a rare creature he seemed to be in this sea of humans that we all encounter’.
Strauss met Kamen in the early Nineties while on a fashion show at Leeds Castle in Kent. ‘He was sitting on the grass, drawing,’ she says. ‘I soon realised it was an obsession.’ Kamen’s father, who died when Barry was 13, had trained as a draughtsman and passed this rigorous discipline on to his son.
Kamen was among the male models who walked for Jean Paul Gaultier’s women’s show in Paris in 1989 — with painted torsos rather than outfits — but years later found himself on the other side of the camera, styling campaigns for Comme des Garçons and Puma.
Art, however, remained Kamen’s first passion, and with the encouragement of his mentor Ray Petri he began exhibiting his work. One of his paintings appeared on the album sleeve of UB40’s Labour of Love II. Then, following his first show at Gaultier’s studio in Paris in 1989, he attracted a loyal group of collectors, among them Kate Moss, the photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino and the fashion designers Azzedine Alaïa, Helmut Lang and Stella McCartney. ‘It’s the confidence of the stroke, it’s the delicacy of the subject matter — all of that, together with Barry’s personality, is something very rarely found, I think, in an artist’s work,’ McCartney says.
Kamen began studying Old Master paintings at the National Portrait Gallery in London. ‘In the same way that Buffalo was all about fixing power with an attitude, Barry began playing with 18th- and 19th-century portraiture, looking at how power is presented through the clothes and the stance,’ says Kamen’s close friend, the artist Glen Erler.
After years of exploration into abstraction, in 2006 he embarked on a major portraiture series, ‘Is Is It’. One of these works, OR ON AT ON (Portrait of Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh), from 2010, is offered in First Open: Post-War and Contemporary Art Online, until 9 March 2023, marking Kamen’s auction debut.
The work is based on a black-and-white lenticular postcard of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip printed for the coronation in 1953. The royals are shown in a state of metamorphosis, their features shape-shifting into one another. The picture is embellished with painted sticking plasters that conceal parts of the image. ‘Barry was fascinated by the way royalty declares itself in paint. As a bi-racial man in Britain, he was playing with that,’ says Strauss.
In one corner is the word ‘killer’, meaning ‘awesome’ in Jamaican patois. Erler recalls Kamen’s love of Dadaist wordplay: ‘He saw words almost as living things that moved and changed — he would cut words out and erase them and constantly use them in his paintings.’
‘Many of the words Barry painted came from Buffalo,’ says Strauss. ‘That time had a huge influence on his practice.’ Kamen considered himself a product of colonialism and the legacy of British imperialism was not lost on him; but Strauss describes Kamen’s view of the monarchy as ‘ambivalent’, noting that he was ‘fascinated by the interplay of pomp and ceremony and the impact the royal family had on style’.
Erler recalls the artist constantly experimenting: ‘I remember being in his studio in West London and he would be drawing these faint circles repeatedly, they were just beautiful. He was always making; he had this singular focus.’
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Trips to New Zealand, Argentina and the photographer Peter Beard’s Hog Ranch in Kenya inspired Kamen to explore gestural abstraction and sculpture. When he died suddenly of a rare heart condition at the age of 52 in 2015, he left an extraordinary body of work behind him.
‘Barry was an artist in the true sense,’ says Erler. ‘His art was deeply existential.’ Strauss agrees: ‘He painted with his whole being. He articulated his soul.’