My Life On A Postage Stamp
Growing up in the 1990s, designer Jon Daniel noticed a lack of black historical figures on UK postage stamps. He designed and petitioned a set of stamps for UK Royal Mail beginning a journey of discovery about African diaspora heroes, and in turn, himself.
Words Nana Ocran
“I don’t think of myself as a philatelist”, says Jon Daniel, Executive Creative Director of the ebb&flow boutique branding company, and now a collector of iconic and retro African diaspora stamps. In October 2011, his month-long exhibition of large-scale images of leading African, Caribbean and African American figureheads entitled ‘Post-Colonial: stamps of the African diaspora,’ took place at the renowned Stanley Gibbons stamp dealer and publishing house on London’s Strand. The collection drew support and interest from figures and organisations including Prince Charles, MP Diane Abbott and English Heritage.
Covering a timeline from around the 1930s to the present, and featuring everyone from Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X, Pele, Obama, Nelson Mandela and everyone else in between, Jon has unintentionally made an significant impact on the world of philately by showcasing celebratory images of African diaspora heroes from around the world.
The fact that Jon’s own father, Boris Daniel, was featured on a stamp in the early 1970s might seem like a snug and familial kickstarter for developing the collection, but no.
‘I didn’t find out about my dad on a stamp until much later’, he explains. ‘It was from Antigua, although my dad was actually from Barbados. He was a civil servant working for a UK government company who wanted people to model for a set of stamps. They found him and some of his friends and got them involved’.
This is almost too serendipitous a detail, given Jon’s ongoing forays into the philatelic world, but it was in fact, the 1989 politically-charged words of hip hoppers Public Enemy who stated, “Cause I’m black and I’m proud, I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped. Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” in their Fight The Power track that had much more personal resonance. Those lyrics fuelled Jon’s thoughts on diasporic icons; that and the fact that images of black historical figures were specifically missing from the British landscape at the time. Infused with a strong dose of creative and cultural passion, he designed his own set of stamps as a petition for the UK Royal Mail to step up to the commemorative plate.
‘The stamp collecting started as a means of gathering ammunition for my proposal’, he says. ‘I wanted to show what other countries did to celebrate black historical figures. The Americans had actually been doing it since the 1970s’.
His collecting process involved a lot of footwork and trawling through stamp fairs to pick out anything that highlighted the African diaspora. A wonderfully quirky collection has since developed, with the likes of Emperor Haile Selassie in Guinea, Desmond Tutu in Cameroon, Louis Armstrong in Chad and Senegal, at least one Miss World in the Caribbean, Ella Fitzgerald in the Gambia and Black Marxists in the USSR all represented on what looks like a vintage collection of mini posters or bijou album covers. There are also surprise appearances by Lionel Ritchie, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Bob Marley and Sammy Davis Jr on a series of Tanzanian stamps from the 1980s.
Obviously Jon has a few favourites. He name checks a number of vibrant gems including one particular stamp featuring a cool, urbane and enigmatic image of the Congolese Prime Minister and independence leader Patrice Lumumba in a 1961 monochrome print from Mongolia. A colourful series featuring jazz and blues greats Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Smith, Duke Ellington and Sidney Bechet is also treasured, as is one of his latest acquisitions that shows songstress Jill Scott as her character Precious Ramotswe from the TV drama The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency from a stamp series that Botswana produced in 2008.
The collection has now gone beyond being a static display in a well-respected venue to something far more conceptual. A collaboration with a composer, Nicholas Brown, resulted in a visual promo of the stamps, which played for a month on The Africa Channel, and can now be viewed on Jon’s website.
‘What Nicholas did was create music inspired by the African diaspora stamps’, Jon explains. ‘We’re going to do an album based on that, so we’re hoping it will be successful enough to become a series of albums of different musical genres.’
Stamp collecting is one of the world’s most prolific hobbies with estimates of 50 million collectors worldwide. As well as crossing boundaries, marrying music with the collection adds a modern relevance and crosses cultural boundaries. Jon notes that Freddie Mercury from Queen was a philatelist and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones collects stamps. ‘We could definitely involve their music in a rock collection.’ Jon-Daniel.com