British Black Art in the 1980s: Visualising the Political Aesthetics of Sufferation, Resistance and Liberation

PRELUDE:

Reflections from Stuart Hall about the history and significance of the British ‘Black Art’ movement during the 1980s:

“This new ‘horizon’ produced a polemical and politicised art: a highly graphic, iconographic art of line and montage, cut-out and collage, image and slogan: the ‘message’ often appearing too pressing, too immediate, too literal, to brook formal delay and, instead, breaking into ‘writing.’ The black body – stretched, threatened, distorted, degraded, imprisoned, beaten and resisting – became an iconic recurring motif”

Stuart Hall (2006) “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain,’ History Workshop Journal (HWJ), Vol. 61(1), p. 17 (cited by Eddie Chambers in Roots and Culture, 2017, p. 201)

Introduction

I was very pleased to view the exhibition The Place is Here” (Nottingham Contemporary, 4 February – 30 April 2017) during its closing weeks, and spend time engaging with a diverse range of ‘politically aesthetic’ works by artists and collectives prominent in the British Black Art movement of the 1980s.

Curated by Nick Aikens and Sam Thorne, in collaboration with Nicola Guy and a number of consultant artists who were central to the period in focus, the exhibition provided a rare opportunity to see c. 100 artworks covering a range of genres, media and artistic practices by 30 of the most celebrated artists from the UK’s African, Caribbean and South Asian diaspora communities assembled together in one space.

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Poster advertising the Radical Black Art “Working Convention,” held at the Ukaidi Centre in Nottingham, 28 March 1984. Photo: Carol Dixon

Taking as its intellectual departure point the discussions held during the inaugural gathering of the First National Black Art Convention in Wolverhampton (1982), and a second “working convention” held in Nottingham in 1984, the curators and contributing artists presented an art-historical and art-political ‘montage’ of works that exemplified how contemporary visual artists, academics, arts activists, cultural commentators, and other critical thinkers were responding to questions about the role of “Black Art” – or the “Black Art Movement” (as it later came to be known) – in the late-20th century. In particular, this question was being posed as a way of catalysing and bringing to prominence a powerful, highly visible reaction to the many challenging social, political, economic and cultural issues facing ‘people of colour’ in Britain at that time.

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Archival documents and art-political posters displayed at Nottingham Contemporary to contextualize the artworks from the 1980s shown in the exhibition “The Place is Here.” Photo: Carol Dixon

What was immediately clear from the inclusion of a significant selection of archival materials, political posters, documentary films, campaign literature, and other publications representing the work of grassroots anti-racist and social justice organisations active during that decade, was that the British Black Art movement – like the individual artists themselves – did not ever function solely within the (physical or imagined) borders of the United Kingdom as a nation-state.  On the contrary, this movement was always conceived by participants active in these struggles as operating within a much broader, more porous, international and diasporic framework of global(ised) activisms, equalities agendas and human rights campaigns. The wider foci for demonstrating solidarity with other Black activists as part of a transnational struggle included: the Civil Rights movement, trades-union activism in the Caribbean region, the collective fight against apartheid in South Africa, the emergence of radical Black feminist/womanist movements worldwide, LGBTQ rights activism, and ongoing efforts to collectivize against and ‘dismantle’ the many remaining structures and systems of colonial oppression dating back to the period of Western European nations’ occidental expansionism and exploitation of the recently independent nations located throughout the Global South(s).

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My walk through the four large display galleries is recreated in this blog post (see below) in the form of a photographic tour, spotlighting a small selection of the contemporary artworks and document assemblages that I considered highly significant and central to the success of this exhibition.

Gallery 1

The first work displayed at the entrance to the reception gallery was a large, wooden ‘cut-out’ depicting a life-size representation of the anti-slavery freedom fighter, and leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture. The cut-out was carved and painted by the Tanzanian-British artist Lubaina Himid, and created to present a likeness of L’Ouverture as illustrated in period drawings from the early-19th century. Text written alongside the image reflected on the monumental achievements reached by leaders like L’Ouverture  to establish Haiti as a free and independent, black-led nation following the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803.

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Toussaint L’Ouverture (1987), by Lubaina Himid. Paint and collage on wood. Displayed courtesy of the artist and Hollybush Gardens. Photo: Carol Dixon

Himid’s work was accompanied within the first section of this gallery by two, striking black and white photographs by Dave Lewis – titled, “The Game” and  “Flag of Our Ancestors” (1985) – and also South African artist Gavin Jantjes’ famous series of screen prints from the mid-1970s, “A South African Colouring Book, 1974-75”.

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“The Game” and “Flag of Our Ancestors” (1985) by Dave Lewis. Silver gelatin prints, courtesy of the artist. Photo: Carol Dixon

Through the adoption and adaptation of a colouring book-style layout to create a text and image-based collage, Jantjes’ installation piece spoke to and visualised his own personal experiences from the 1970s of being racially classified as “Cape Coloured” during the brutal apartheid era.

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“Classify this Coloured” – from the series “A South African Colouring Book, 1974-75” – by Gavin Jantjes. Screen print and collage. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Moving further into the centre of the gallery a number of large-scale works on loan from the Arts Council Collection and Tate Britain were presented in dialogue with one another, and created a discursive space for conversations ‘in the round’ with visiting audiences. The works displayed on the walls included: two, famous four-part installations from the 1980s by Eddie Chambers – specifically, “Destruction of the National Front” (1979-80), featuring a disintegrating, swastika-shaped Union Flag, and the “African Icons” (1987) series of relief works situating the roots of Black British activism within a wider, international Pan-Africanism, Garveyism, and the Black Power movement.

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“Destruction of the National Front” (1979-80), by Eddie Chambers. Courtesy of Tate Britain. Photo: Carol Dixon

Mowbray Odonkor’s “Onward Christian Soldiers” (1984), Sutapa Biswas’ expansive, allegorical two-panel collage “The Pied Piper of Hamlyn – Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” (1987), Sonia Boyce’s 4-panel artwork “Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think What Made Britain so Great” (1986), and Rasheed Araeen’s “Green Painting” were also presented in the round, encircling a large sculptural work by Veronica Ryan in the central floor space.

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“Onward Christian Soldiers” (1984), by Mowbray Odonkor. Acrylic on paper. Courtesy of the Arts Council Collection, London. Photo: Carol Dixon
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Exhibition view of works by Rasheed Araeen, Sutapa Biswas and Veronica Ryan on display in Gallery 1 for “The Place is Here” (4 February – 30 April 2017). Photo: Carol Dixon

Gallery 2

Gallery 2 featured more introspective pieces, addressing the interior worlds of artists whose reflections on the corporealised politics of blackness, issues of identity and ontological well-being featured prominently in their oeuvres. Themes relating to sexual freedom, gender equality, belonging and sense of place were variously intersected with visceral artistic responses to the ‘hyper-visibilisation’ and ‘minoritization’ of black and brown bodies within British society. The  sculptural, photographic, collage-based and textual political commentary foregrounded a range of complex situations and settings where people of African, Caribbean and Asian heritage were continuously fighting the daily onslaught of being stereotyped, problematised and de-normalised.

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Exhibition view of Gallery 2, subtitled “We Will Be” to echo a statement from Lubaina Himid’s featured cut-out. The two works are “From Tarzan to Rambo…” (1987) by Sonia Boyce, and “The Body Politic” (1983) by Keith Piper. Photo: Carol Dixon

Some of the stand-out works in this space included: two drawings of black female nudes by Claudette Johnson, titled “I Came to Dance” (1982); Donald Rodney’s mixed-media installation “The House that Jack Built” (1987) – featuring a statement about the roots of his family tree stemming from “the souls of 75 million dead black souls,”as well as x-rays of his own body incorporated into the work (to reflect his personal experience of enduring the ravages of Sickle Cell disease); and Zarina Bhimji’s “She Loved to Breathe – Pure Silence“(1987).

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Exhibition view of “The House that Jack Built” (1987), by Donald Rodney. Mixed media installation, courtesy of Museums Sheffield. Photo: Carol Dixon

Zarina Bhimji’s poignant installation – positioned in the gallery space alongside photographic self-portraits in rural settings by Ingrid Pollard, photo-collages by Maud Sulter, and archives from the “Making Histories Visible” project – combined b&w photographic imagery (suspended from the ceiling) with a scattering of vivid red and orange spices on the floor to represent and expose the horrors and traumas of state-sanctioned molestation and violation many South Asian women (and other migrant women) faced as a result of Home Office regulations in the 1970s subjecting black and brown women and girls to (what later became) illegal “virginity tests” to secure right of entry to Britain on the grounds of marriage.

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Exhibition view of “She Loved to Breathe – Pure Silence” (1987), by Zarina Bhimji. Gelatin silver hand-coloured photographs, muslin, latex gloves, perspex, spices. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo: Carol Dixon

Gallery 3

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Detail of two cut-outs from Lubaina Himid’s mixed-media installation “A Fashionable Marriage” (1986). This work was inspired by Hogarth’s 18th century satirical work “Marriage-a-la-Mode” (1740). Photo: Carol Dixon

Although the third gallery was dominated by Lubaina Himid’s cut-outs from the expansive mixed-media installation “A Fashionable Marriage” (1986), I was far more interested in the two silk screen and laser print works by Chila Kumari Burman positioned on the left wall. In these works, the words of the notoriously racist “Rivers of Blood” speech by Conservative Party politician Enoch Powell, and related sentiments from former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s TV interview about Britain being “swamped” by immigrants, were both alluded to and combined with a range of pictorial signifiers of identity and citizenship to create Burman’s superb satirical piece, “Convenience, Not Love” (1985).

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“Convenience Not Love” (1985) by Chila Kumari Burman. Colour silk screen and laser print works, courtesy of Jane Beckett. Photo: Carol Dixon

GLC posters depicting anti-racist murals designed in pairs by the artists Tam Joseph, Gavin Jantjes, the aforementioned Chila Kumari Burman and Keith Piper, as well as two table vitrines full of political art books, magazines and early issues of the influential journal Third Text, completed the room display.

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Gallery 4

To conclude the exhibition, Gallery 4 featured a selection of photography, political posters, documentary film and clips from cinematic artworks by celebrated photographic artists and film-makers, such as Vanley Burke, David A. Bailey, June Givanni, Sunil Gupta, Sankofa and the Black Audio Film Collective.

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Sunil Gupta’s series of photographic collages – titled, “Pretend” Family Relationships, 1-4 (1988) – provided a fitting focal point for this gallery space, especially as the artist’s referencing of reactions to the infamous “Clause 28” section of the Local Government Act 1988, introduced during the Thatcher era (and pursued in opposition to the recognition of homosexual relationships as constituting “family life”/”family relationships”) was a way of illustrating just how intersected and entangled the struggles against racism, sexism and homophobia were (and how collective campaigning in support of gender, race, class and LGBTQ equalities needed to be) at that time.

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Detail from the 3rd part of the installation “‘Pretend’ Family Relationships, 1-4” (1988). by Sunil Gupta. Photographic collage print, courtesy of Sunil Gupta/Sepia Eye New York.

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On balance, I really enjoyed viewing this exhibition. However, I was very disappointed that the curators and contributing artists did not publish a catalogue to accompany the featured works. This is especially disappointing given that the entire exhibition was a continuation and extension of an earlier selection of works curated by Nick Aikens in 2015-16 for display at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (titled, “The 1980s: Today’s Beginnings?”).

Moreover, if an exhibition is curated and promoted as a “group show” about the most important artists and arts activists from a specific historical period/moment in which individuals and groups (based throughout the provinces and regions) were advocating collective struggles and common causes, then it is incongruous and inappropriate to position one artist – in this case, Lubaina Himid – in a much greater position of prominence (within the exhibition space, throughout the exhibition’s interpretation narrative, and in all the marketing literature) than any other. This can be particularly problematic if it is also done in a  revisionist way that actively excludes several  other significant  women and men who have now been  (pretty much) erased from the narrative altogether. I’m thinking here of people like Simone Alexander, Amanda Holiday, Denzil Forrester and Eugene Palmer, etc. I suppose this situation might have arisen partly because of what appeared to be the prioritising of certain archival repositories and research collections (that were more easily accessible than others, perhaps?) as the most dominant sources of information for the exhibition’s curation. However, in the absence of any catalogue essays to fully explain – in a detailed and nuanced way –  the critical thinking, research methods and selection processes that sat behind what was eventually shown on display, then perhaps visitors like me (who are quite familiar with this period, both in terms of direct lived experience, and also in terms of ongoing research interests)  will never really know!

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Carol Dixon viewing posters from the 1980s in Gallery 4 of the exhibition, “The Place is Here.”

For further information about the British Black Art movement of the 1980s, in fuller context, I recommend the following books, articles and podcasts:

ARAEEN, Rasheed (2004) “The Success and the Failure of Black Art.” Third Text, Vol. 18 (2), pp. 135-152

BAILEY, David A., Sonia BOYCE, and Ian BAUCOM (2005) Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain. Duke University Press, in collaboration with INIVA

CHAMBERS, Eddie (2017) Roots and Culture: Cultural Politics in the Making of Black Britain. London and New York: I. B. Tauris – especially Chapter 7 “Picture on the Wall”, pp. 175-204  Website: http://www.eddiechambers.com/roots-and-culture/

CHAMBERS, Eddie (2014) Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s. London and New York: I. B. Tauris – all chapters, particularly Chapters 7 through to 11.  Website: http://www.eddiechambers.com/ibtaurisbook/ (see, also, my earlier interview with Professor Eddie Chambers about this book, featured on Museum Geographies)

HALL, Stuart (2006) “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain: Three ‘Moments’ in Post-war History.” History Workshop Journal, Vol. 61 (1), pp. 1-21. doi:  https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbi074

KERMAN, Monique (2015) Drawing maps: history and geography in contemporary black British art, African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, Vol. 8 (1), pp. 15-24.
doi: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17528631.2014.966957

MERCER, Kobena (1990) “Black art and the burden of representation.” Third Text, Vol. 4 (10), pp. 61-78. doi: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09528829008576253

The Influence of the British Black Art Movement  (2017) – BBC Radio Three Free Thinkers Series, recorded in January 2017. Artists Sonia Boyce, Isaac Julien, Eddie Chambers and Harold Offeh talk to journalist Anne McElvoy about their art and the influence of the British Black Art movement. 45 minutes duration.

 

 

 

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Carol Dixon

Carol Ann Dixon is an education consultant and academic researcher interested in African and Caribbean diaspora histories and heritage, cultural geography, museology and contemporary visual art. Her PhD dissertation/doctoral thesis is titled "The 'othering' of Africa and its diasporas in Western museum practices" (University of Sheffield, UK, 2016).

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