The art world's Afro Supa Hero

Lorayne Crawford

Lorayne Crawford on Jon Daniel, the pioneering artist who sought to promote diversity and challenge discrimination

08 November 2018 13:35

The first time I met the late Jon Daniel was on the side of the stage at a George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic show at The Forum, London. Eyes closed, head back, shoulders set in the groove, he was so caught up in getting down to the music that he didn’t notice anybody around him. When he eventually did, he beamed a huge grin in my direction then carried on dancing. I liked him immediately. That wonderful night was over 4 years ago now and the first of many I was privileged to share with Jon through music, work and as a friend. It is also how I like to remember him.

Born in East Sheen, South West London, award-winning designer, graphic artist, writer and activist Jon Daniel was one of the most prominent black creatives of his generation. A pivotal player in capturing the essence of Black British struggle and empowerment through his art, Jon realised what he wanted to do at a very early age, inspired by his secondary school art teacher, Miss Compton.

Growing up in London in the 1970s, there were very few positive role models for a young black teenager to identify with. Instead, Jon found himself looking to the African Caribbean culture of his family, and the African American culture of the US, where political figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, along with members of the Black Panther Party, stepped in to fill this gaping void. The Black Panther’s Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas’s, evocative designs particularly spoke to Jon, fueling a deep desire in the young designer to use his own creative talent to promote and tackle social and human rights issues.

The Afro Supa Hero Twins

Graduating in 1987 from Richmond College in Graphic Design, Jon went on to set up his own consultancy company, while working in art direction for huge clients such as Virgin, IBM and the NHS. But his most poignant work was created outside of his commercial career, as Jon worked tirelessly to create art that would inspire and bring people together, working with charities and grassroots projects to harness the passions that were most important to him. Concerned with combatting representation in the media and campaigning against racism, much of Jon’s work was created for organisations and campaigns such as Black History Month, Operation Black Vote, and the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Windrush this year.

Inspired by the Public Enemy lyric, ‘I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped, most of my Heroes don’t appear on no Stamp’, to highlight this lack of diversity, Jon began collecting stamps from the African Diaspora and created his own set celebrating black contributions to Britain. He then petitioned for over 10 years for the Royal Mail to include a set of stamps that reflects the country’s multicultural roots, and although nothing came directly from them, Stanley Gibbons loved the idea, and subsequently held an exhibition based on his collection in their flagship store.

A pamphlet from Jon Daniel's collaboration with George Clinton

After the success of his stamp exhibition, Jon decided he wanted to do something with the black action figures he had been collecting since his teens.  A year later, in 2013 Jon’s first ‘Afro Supa Hero’ exhibition was held at the V&A Museum of Childhood, for which he created the Afro Supa Hero ‘Twins’, which have now become one of his most recognisable works. Showcasing his personal collection of comic books, games and action figures from the African diaspora, the exhibition offered a glimpse into the childhood of a boy with African Caribbean heritage, growing up in search of his identity.

Music, particularly funk, was an integral part of Jon’s personality. His introduction to the genre came at the tender age of 14 via a pirate radio station. ‘Agony of DeFeet’ came on, and in Jon’s own words, ‘it literally blew my mind!’ – thus marking the beginning of a lifelong fascination with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. It comes as no surprise, then, that Jon’s collaboration with Clinton was one of his proudest moments – designing album artwork for a special music boxset, and a commemorative box of chocolates to mark the 40th anniversary of the band’s Chocolate City LP.

A true visionary, Jon’s work brought people together, his art always reflecting a world view that was compassionate, committed, and inseparable from social and political developments. The first retrospective of Jon’s work is now being held at the 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning in Brixton, where he was resident artist for over two years, mentoring and working to support young designers. Celebrating his legacy of iconic imagery, this exhibition is a curation of his most important work, that will undoubtedly continue to inspire generations to come. Most of life’s real heroes spend most of their time behind the scenes, but they should not be forgotten. Jon Daniel is one of them.

The Jon Daniel – Afro Supa Hero exhibition will be running at the 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, Brixton until 16 November.