Contributing speakers (left to right): Jan Marsh, Laura Marcus, Roshan McClenahan, Gemma Romain, Caroline Bressey, Kimathi Donkor, S.I. Martin, Michael Ohajuru, Florian Stadtler, Partha Mitter and David Dibosa (standing at the podium).

A review of the Tate Britain symposium, “The Black Subject: Ancient to Modern”

A photograph of the sculpture 'Midonz' (1937) by Jamaican-British artist Ronald Moody. Source: Tate Britain. © The estate of Ronald Moody
A photograph of the sculpture ‘Midonz’ (1937) by Jamaican-British artist Ronald Moody. Source: Tate Britain. © The estate of Ronald Moody

On 20th and 21st February 2015 Tate Britain hosted a two-day event to explore a number of themes about representations of African and Asian people and their diasporic descendents within European art history. The symposium was scheduled to complement the display ‘Spaces of Black Modernism: London 1919–39’  – co-curated by Dr Caroline Bressey and Dr Gemma Romain (The Equiano Centre, University College London), and currently on view at Tate Britain until October 2015.

Through a carefully assembled programme of talks, film screenings and audio-visual provocations the title ‘The Black Subject: Ancient to Modern’ was brought to life by  a diverse group of scholars from the fields of visual arts, curating, art history and the social sciences –  with each participant offering unique insights into changing representations of the black image within artworks from the Tate’s British art collection, other UK art institutions, and European museums and galleries more broadly.

A photograph of American actor, singer, political activist  and philanthropist Paul Robeson (1898-1976)
A photograph of American actor, singer, political activist and philanthropist Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

Friday’s session featured a screening of Borderline (1930) – an avant-garde silent movie  created by British film director Kenneth Macpherson, starring African-American actors Paul Robeson and Eslanda (‘Essie’) Robeson. The resulting Q&A critiqued the complexities of the featured relationships that addressed inter-sected issues about ‘inter-racial’ intimacy, gender identities, notions of belonging and sexuality ‘across the colour line’.

A still from the film Borderline (1930) showing the African-American actress Eslanda Goode Robeson (1895-1965).
A still from the film Borderline (1930) showing the African-American actress Eslanda Goode Robeson (1895-1965).

Saturday’s symposium was arranged into four chronological and thematic sessions, considering: (1) the ongoing tensions that can arise during the process of documenting the longevity of the black presence whilst simultaneously noting the continuous absences, erasures and distortions of African, Asian and diasporic contributions within British art history; (2) photographic images and illustrations of black Victorians sourced from a range of public and private archives; (3) two case studies about artists’ models from early 20th century and inter-war colonial periods – specifically the life of the Jamaican artistic model Patrick Nelson (1916-1963), presented in Gemma Romain’s paper “Patrick Nelson: Identity, queerness and love in the life of a black artists’ model in interwar Britain”; and the lives of Dr Roshan McClenahan’s famous Indian aunts ‘Sunita and Anita’ who both modelled for artist Sir Jacob Epstein; (4) re-imagining and pluralising the modernist canon as global, hybrid and ‘multi-polar’, envisioned via scholarship about the life and work of the Indian modernist Jamini Roy, presented by Professor Partha Mitter.

A painting of three women by the Indian modernist  Jamini Roy (1887-1972).
A painting of three women by the Indian modernist Jamini Roy (1887-1972).

For the most part the presentations provided nuanced and insightful observations that cast new light on age-old issues of ‘race’ and racism in the arts – and also proved instructive about the necessity to read “against the archival grain” within record repositories so as to uncover, normalise and re-interpret information about several centuries of the continuous visible black presence in British art that many mainstream historians and cultural commentators continue to deny or distort.

Contributing speakers (left to right): Jan Marsh, Laura Marcus, Roshan McClenahan, Gemma Romain, Caroline Bressey, Kimathi Donkor, S.I. Martin, Michael Ohajuru, Florian Stadtler, Partha Mitter and David Dibosa (standing at the podium).
Contributing speakers (left to right): Jan Marsh, Laura Marcus, Roshan McClenahan, Gemma Romain, Caroline Bressey, Kimathi Donkor, S.I. Martin, Michael Ohajuru, Florian Stadtler, Partha Mitter and David Dibosa (standing at the podium). Photo: Carol Dixon

The stand-out contributions to this programme (in no particular order) were:

  • British artist Kimathi Donkor pictured in front of his painting Andromeda (2011). Source: InIVA [http://www.iniva.org/]
    British artist Kimathi Donkor pictured in front of his painting ‘The Rescue of Andromeda’ (2011). Source: InIVA [http://www.iniva.org/]
    Kimathi Donkor’s visually stunning presentation of “Andromeda Africana” –which featured a skillful unmasking of the ways ancient Greek myths  (such as the story of Andromeda) are hegemonically re-imaginged over time and space to perpetually privilege whiteness as always being synonymous with ‘classical’ beauty, even in the face of over-whelming  counter-narratives and counter-geographies casting this particular mythological figure as an Ethiopian queen. A particularly important aspect of Donkor’s presentation was for him to retain a central image of his painting The Rescue of Andromeda (2011) right in the middle of his slide-show and rotate supporting images to the left and right of this central portrait to ensure that the black queen (modelled on his wife) was centrally placed for the duration of his talk…visually as well as textually.

    The Rescue of Andromeda (2011), by Kimathi Donkor. Oil paint on canvas. Image Source: University of the Arts London - http://www.arts.ac.uk/.
    The Rescue of Andromeda (2011), by Kimathi Donkor. Oil paint on canvas. Image Source: University of the Arts London – http://www.arts.ac.uk/.
  • Dr Temi Odumosu.
    Dr Temi Odumosu.

    Art historian Dr Temi Odumosu’s video provocation, “Tyranny of the Subject: Black representation both past and present” – featuring a beautifully constructed and expertly analysed audio-visual ‘tracing’ through –  and questioning of –  the long history of artistic (mis-)representations and marginalisation of blackness in European paintings. Historian S.I. Martin further contextualized and responded to this provocation with his own interpretations of the themes, scenes, symbols and hierarchical positioning of subjects within 18th- and 19th-century portraiture, as well as deconstructing the violent anti-abolitionist sentiments behind the grotesque caricaturing of black people within  political cartoons and newspaper illustrations by William Hogarth, George Cruikshank and others.

  • Superb and responsive interventions by expert practitioners and scholars seated in the audience – whose contributions were repeatedly (but unsurprisingly and unfortunately) squeezed, and curtailed throughout the entire Day 2 schedule. Despite the undervaluing of Q&A commentary,  notable contributions by audience-based respondents such as Professor Sonia Boyce enabled some referencing and remembering of the scholarship, creativity and activism of several important artist-curators and academics on whose shoulders projects like ‘The Black Subject’ and ‘Spaces of Black Modernism: London 1919-39’ now stand.  Like Sonia Boyce, I also acknowledge and name the significant and ongoing contributions (and legacies) of her peers and predecessors within British art history,  whose achievements should feature much more prominently in the historicization of Tate Britain’s exhibiting practices – extending far beyond ‘Shades of Black’ (Boyce et. al., 2005)  to (re-)signify the important  work (or ‘groundings’) of conceptual artist and curator Rasheed Araeen, artist and academic Professor Eddie Chambers, theorist Professor Stuart Hall (in memoriam), artist Claudette Johnson, artist-curator and academic Professor Lubaina Himid, writer and curator Dr Mike Phillips (the first post-holder of the Cross-Cultural Programmes curatorial role at Tate Britain) and (to represent the many un-named black artists erased from the modernist European canon and its various archives over many decades) I also symbolically invoke the name of the late, great South African modernist Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002) – a key (but under-acknowledged) founding member of Europe’s avant-garde CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) art movement, who also lived, studied and worked in London for a period.

ADDITIONAL NOTES AND REFERENCES:

  1. To view the full listing of contributors to the symposium’s five sessions, please see the Tate’s website at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/talks-and-lectures-conference/symposium-black-subject-ancient-modern
  2. Further information about the artist Kimathi Donkor’s portfolio  is available online at http://www.kimathidonkor.net/
  3. Details about Dr Temi Odumosu’s art history publications are available on The Image of Black web portal at http://www.theimageofblack.com/. See also Temi’s short (c. 5-minute) video narrative about the way people of African descent have historically been represented in the West as ‘other’ , titled “The Stereotypes Remain the Same” (Living Archives Project, 2014), available via YouTube.
  4. For additional information about Professor Sonia Boyce’s involvement in the research project and publication ‘Shades of Black’, please see: BOYCE, S., BAILEY, D. A. & BAUCOM, I. 2005. Shades of black: assembling black arts in 1980s Britain, Durham, N.C. and London, Duke University Press.
  5. Useful guidance on approaches to researching and contextualising racialised colonial documentation in archives and other record repositories is available in the following text: STOLER, A. L. 2009. Along the archival grain: epistemic anxieties and colonial common sense, Princeton, N.J. and Oxford, Princeton University Press.
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Carol Dixon

Carol Dixon is a teacher, education consultant and doctoral researcher interested in African and Caribbean diaspora histories and heritage, cultural geography, museology and contemporary visual art. Her recently completed PhD thesis is titled "The 'othering' of Africa and its diasporas in Western museum practices" (University of Sheffield, August 2016).

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