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.
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Curatorial traditions and experimental innovations at the Brooklyn Museum, New York

My recent visit to view the expansive art collections at Brooklyn Museum, located in the Prospect Park area of New York City, provided an interesting  opportunity to peruse and critique a series of complex and engaging artistic and curatorial juxtapositions. On every level of this five storey building the vast collections of exhibits and their interpretation narratives were assembled to encourage dialogues between historical artefacts and contemporary artworks, established and experimental museographic techniques, and also conventional versus innovative perspectives on curation, all coupled together within close proximity throughout the display spaces.

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Detail from the artwork “Skipping Girl” (2009) by Royal Academician Yinka Shonibare MBE, comprising a life-size, headless fibreglass mannequin, dressed in Dutch wax-printed cotton textiles. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)

The African Collections on Level 1

Nowhere were these artistic and curatorial binaries more starkly evidenced than in the furthest corner of the Level 1 galleries where two, black walled rooms presented the Museum’s permanent holdings of African art objects as the temporary installation “Double Take: African Innovations.

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Title panel for the temporary, two-room installation, “Double Take” displayed at the entrance to the African galleries in the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Carol Dixon (18/02/2017)

Whilst it was wonderful browsing these two, tightly filled galleries, packed almost to bursting point with a diverse array of artworks sourced from several African nations, the thematic nature of curator Kevin Dumouchelle’s presentation – contrasting historical sculptural pieces with a range of more recent, multi-media contemporary art exhibits  – was actually rendered quite problematic by the Museum’s decision to retain the old-fashioned convention of showcasing African collections within dimly lit, darkly painted interior settings, designed to communicate (wittingly, or unwittingly) the tired 19th century tropes about Africa being perceived in the West as a culturally mysterious ‘Dark Continent’ (see, for example, Hutcheon 1995: 11-13 and Elliott 2007: 32).
Continue reading Curatorial traditions and experimental innovations at the Brooklyn Museum, New York

The M.A.D (“Make a Difference”) Project: Challenging ‘othering,’ injustice and intolerance through education and arts activism

On 7th December I was pleased to give a presentation about African and Diasporan artists’ ‘politically aesthetic’ interventions and activism within museums and galleries in the West. This illustrated talk was part of a panel session and Q&A that took place at Raindance in Charing Cross as the inaugural London meeting organised by the education and social justice project “Make a Difference” (aka “The M.A.D Project“).

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M.A.D (“Make a Difference”) Project panelists (from left to right): Vikram Ahluwalia; Oliver King; and Dr. Carol Dixon

As a non-profit education organisation, the artists, teachers, scholars and arts activists affiliated to M.A.D seek to develop creative learning initiatives, exhibitions and awareness-raising campaigns that challenge dominant narratives perpetuating racialalised hierarchies, ‘differentialist racism,’ stereotyping and the legacies of colonialism within present-day mainstream society. Through this work M.A.D make a significant contribution towards tackling racism(s), other forms of prejudice, intolerance and misrepresentations of cultures falsely perceived as ‘other.’

Central to the Project’s pedagogic outcomes are the ongoing collation and presentation of stories and images detailing different forms of cultural expression from various regions of the World – particularly the Middle East, continental Africa, Asia and Europe. These diverse (and often diasporic) narratives – as well as the activists’ and researchers’ accounts of their own travel experiences through which this cultural knowledge is sourced –  are widely disseminated via publications, photo exhibitions and taught programmes in classrooms,  community-based organizations, universities and other public institutions.

The over-arching theme of the inaugural London event was “Challenging dominant narratives through arts and culture.” Continue reading The M.A.D (“Make a Difference”) Project: Challenging ‘othering,’ injustice and intolerance through education and arts activism

Conference Panel: Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation

Carol Ann Dixon will chair a 90-minute conference session on decolonial scholar-activism by African and Diasporan artists, curators and educators working with collections of ethnography and works of fine art in Western museums. This session forms part of the programme for the 6th biennial network conference Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe, University of Tampere, Finland, 6 – 8 July 2017.

Session title: Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation: African and Diasporan Arts Activists Agitating for Change

"Anthropomorphic head" (Benin, c. 14th -16th century), displayed in the Pavillon des Sessions at The Louvre. Photo: Carol Dixon
“Anthropomorphic head” (Benin, c. 14th -16th century), displayed in the Pavillon des Sessions at The Louvre. Photo: Carol Dixon

Overview:
High-profile museums and galleries in the West – such as the British Museum in London, the Pompidou in Paris, and the MoMA in New York – are continuously revising and developing new strategic plans  to ensure that their collections, cultural programmes and exhibiting practices are engaging increasingly diverse global audiences. At the heart of these developments are complex issues about the changing nature of acquisitioning, curation, display and interpretation of artworks and cultural objects described as permanent holdings. The policies and practices implemented by these institutions serve as catalysts for generating and sustaining a rich discourse that invites artists, researchers, curators, archivists, educators, scholar activists and other creative practitioners to question their own roles and responsibilities within such dynamic museumscapes.

In this panel discussion, museologists, art historians, contemporary artists, scholars, educators and cultural  commentators from around the world will come together to discuss these issues with reference to one (or more) of the following questions:
Continue reading Conference Panel: Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation

Reflections on a “Festival for the World” and Alpha Diagne’s “Blue House” at the Southbank in London

For the past four years the Southbank Centre in London has hosted an event called “Africa Utopia.” Typically, this diverse programme of talks, marketplace activities, displays, fashion shows and other artistic happenings takes place over the course of a weekend in early autumn and is marketed as one of the Southbank’s “Festivals for the World” series.

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Carol Dixon with musician, writer and graphic designer Natalie Cooper at Africa Utopia 2016

The artistic and strategic collaborations that produce this extensive cultural programme involve a number of key players – most importantly, the event’s co-founders: the Senegalese singer and human rights advocate Baaba Maal; and the Southbank Centre’s artistic director Jude Kelly CBE  – as well as a host of commercial sponsors, media partners and arts organisations contributing to the talks, performances and market place activities.

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Carol Dixon with globally renowned Senegalese singer and human rights advocate Baaba Maal at Africa Utopia 2016

Central to the success of Africa Utopia is its ability to remain topical, informed and up-to-date about artistic and aesthetic innovations emerging from all regions of the continent, as well as from the communities of African diasporans settled all over the world. This is one of the reasons why hosting the event in the heart of an urban metropolis like London is always such an interesting mix of cultural and political fusion, shown through a variety of arts and crafts created by established and emerging designers, photographers, textile artists, creators of African inspired couture and contemporary art installationists.

For me, the highlight of Africa Utopia 2016 was the range of talks and debates – not only in relation to literary, visual and performing arts, but also in terms of how such cultural discourses intersect with the political, economic, environmental and technological concerns affecting people’s daily lives. This year’s panel sessions were programmed by Hannah Pool and curated with a focus on themes such as arts activism, social justice and inclusive practices within the cultural  and creative industries – especially in relation to TV, cinema and online broadcasting platforms.

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Audience members  listening to the debate about activism and social change at Africa Utopia 2016

Continue reading Reflections on a “Festival for the World” and Alpha Diagne’s “Blue House” at the Southbank in London