The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift serves as one of the more fascinating minor episodes in 20th-century British history. Part of the interwar ferment of experimental lifestyles and youth movements, the Kindred was founded in 1920 as a camping and woodcraft organization, whose members—male and female, young and old—loosely styled themselves as a romantic cross between Native American shamans and back-to-nature medievalists (the name Kibbo Kift, meaning “proof of strength,” comes from an archaic English dialect). Originating as a kind of splinter group of the Boy Scouts, which the Kindred rejected as too imperialist and militaristic in nature, the organization espoused utopian and progressive ideals of pacifism, universal fellowship and spiritual enlightenment. The members saw themselves as an elite (never numbering more than a few hundred at any one time) who were destined to liberate a degenerate, increasingly urbanized society. Yet ultimately the growing dominance of radical politics within the group, particularly the controversial economic theory of Social Credit-—a socialist scheme to equalize spending power and thereby erase poverty—led to their decline and eventual transformation into a fringe political party by the early ’30s.
“Intellectual Barbarians,” a small but enthralling exhibition of Kindred artwork, publications and archival material in the Whitechapel’s library space, covers the entirety of the group’s existence. The remarkable thing is how consistent their visual aesthetic was, despite the ostensible shifts in ideology. Undoubtedly, this was partly due to the controlling influence of John Hargrave (or “White Fox,” to use his Kindred name), the movement’s founder and a commercial artist of sorts. The sigils he designed in 1929 for Kindred lodges and specialisms were miniature masterpieces of clarity and concision, the roundels’ resplendent colors and geometric forms encapsulating what seems to have been the basic principle of Kibbo Kift artistry: the marriage of mystical or mythological forms with explicitly modernist elements. This is seen, most notably, in his design for the role of “Kin Photographer,” featuring a dynamic Constructivist-style rendering of an all-seeing-eye motif.
For the mystical side of things, the Kindred frequently turned to tribal or ancient art for inspiration. Hargrave’s highly detailed designs for a 1927-28 set of archery equipment displayed in the show, for instance, were clearly influenced by Celtic ornamentation, while his 1924 tooled leather cover for the Kinlog tome (the group’s official, illustrated history) features a vaguely hieroglyphic, Egyptological layout. More often, however, it was Native American traditions that provided the group’s symbolism of choice. Certainly, the most magnificent works on view had a “Red Indian” feel—with all the primitivist and monolithic conceptions of Native American culture that this contemporary term implies. From the beautifully angular bird-of-prey carvings on members’ wooden totems to the bright, blocky patterning of the surcoats worn for ritual occasions (the ordinary attire was simpler and Robin Hood green), the Kindred’s version of modernism owes an obvious, problematic debt to Native American devices, in much the same way that, say, Cubism stems from Picasso’s appropriation of African imagery.
The show also includes a lot of archival material, the most interesting being photographs by Kin Photographer Angus McBean. Although he mainly depicted decorated tepees and parading Kinsmen (despite the movement’s supposed ideology of gender equality, it was primarily men he focused on), in 1929 he documented the current show’s precursor: the Whitechapel’s “Kibbo Kift Educational Exhibition,” whose campcraft displays proved massively popular, even as official Kindred membership had by this stage drastically dwindled.
The current show, too, is pretty crowded—the busiest I’ve ever seen the one-room gallery. Indeed, the exhibition feels incredibly timely, given cultural trends seen today in Britain and elsewhere: the hipster-led folk revival, the nostalgia for all things prewar, the artistic interest in utopian movements and collectives. As such, the one failing of the show is that it lacks contemporary examples of how this cultural moment might have roots in the Kindred’s long-ignored, defiantly spiritual, willfully rural take on modernism.