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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The Life and Artworks of Wifredo Lam – a Cuban ‘Passeur’ in Paris

lam-photograph-of-the-artistMy proposal to present a research paper about the life and work of Cuban surrealist artist Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) at the forthcoming 2nd CARISCC Postgraduate Conference on Caribbean In/securities and Creativity (University of Leeds, UK, 8th March 2017) has been accepted. The presentation – titled, “Reading Issues of In/Security and Creativity through the Life and Artworks of Wifredo Lam: a Cuban ‘Passeur’ in Paris” – will form part of a broad conference programme themed around  ‘Reading’ Caribbean In/securities for Creativity. Through this theme my fellow conference contributors and I will seek to examine the links between precariousness and creativity within the context of Caribbean cultural, area and diaspora studies.

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Exhibition view of a sculpture and painting (titled “Umbral” (1950)) by Wifredo Lam, featured in a room devoted to the artist’s works from the Pompidou’s permanent collection. This assemblage was showcased as part of the display “Multiple Modernities, 1905-1970” (2013-2015). Photo: Carol Dixon.

ABSTRACT:

When art scholar Catherine Grenier recently curated the exhibition “Multiple Modernities, 1905-1970”* for the Pompidou in Paris, she made reference to the French term “passeur” [“go-between”] to describe the activities of selected pioneering and influential modernists whose travels and artistic practices throughout the 20th century supported global artistic syncretism and dynamic cultural exchanges across a range of art forms, movements, genres and media. For Grenier, the role of the passeur was an important aspect of ‘thirding’ the Pompidou’s gallery spaces so as to displace and replace false Enlightenment era polarities of Self/Other binarism in favour of more fluid and pluralist ‘both/and also’ exhibiting practices – as advocated by cultural theorists such as Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak and Ed Soja.

Photograph of the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam
Photograph of the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, taken in the early 1950s

One person celebrated and valorised in this thematic display as an influential passeur of Caribbean heritage – who (in Grenier’s words) “propagated the modern spirit throughout the world” – was the Cuban surrealist artist Wifredo Lam (1902-1982).

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Artists Pablo Picasso and Wifredo Lam, photographed together in 1954.

In this conference presentation, archival documents and past exhibitions detailing the artist’s portfolio of works and his biography will be showcased as the prelude to addressing underlying questions about the extent of Wifredo Lam’s ‘borderless fluidity’ and ‘hybrid identity’ as a passeur ‘of colour’ – negotiating complex spaces and structures normalised as white within avant-garde Europe during the inter-war period. This spatio-temporal survey and mapping of his lived experiences – as an artist deeply influenced by his African, Asian and European ancestry, just as much as his connections to fellow artists in the Surrealist Movement of ‘Jazz Age’ Paris (most notably, Pablo Picasso) – will also serve as the prelude to deeper, critical reflections on the politics of in/security within the observed aesthetic characteristics and narrative interpretations of Lam’s visual poetics by contemporary art critics, scholars and wider publics.

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The Wedding (1947) by Wifredo Lam. Oil paint on canvas, dimensions 216 x 200. The original artwork is part of the collection of the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museum, Berlin.

Continue reading The Life and Artworks of Wifredo Lam – a Cuban ‘Passeur’ in Paris

Call for Papers: Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation

Carol 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 forthcoming programme for the 6th biennial network conference Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe, University of Tampere, Finland, 6 – 8 July 2017.

If you would like to propose a research paper, show a portfolio of work, or suggest an alternative multi-media presentation for consideration, please draft a 250-word abstract in response to the following overview:

Session: 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 Call for Papers: Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation

NAMLA (Nader Art Museum Latin America) celebrates Wifredo Lam in New York

Public exhibition from November 11 through November 21 at Gary Nader NY, 24 West 57th Street, New York City. This show will include works from the Nader Art Museum Latin America (NAMLA) as well as Several Prestigious Private Collections Nader Art Museum Latin America and Gary Nader NY are pleased to announce the upcoming exhibition […]

via NAMLA celebrates Wifredo Lam in New York — Repeating Islands

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