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

Circa 1970, and beyond, at the Studio Museum in Harlem (New York)

One of the places designated as a ‘must see!’ during my recent trip to the United States was the Studio Museum in Harlem: a site first established in the iconic New York district  in 1968 as a space for ‘artists of colour’ from the USA, the global African diasporas and Latinx heritage communities to (in the words of the current Creative Director and Chief Curator, Thelma Golden)  “share their gifts of provocation and insight.”

At the time of my visit in mid-February 2017 the Studio Museum’s main galleries featured the following four temporary displays and exhibits, arranged on three levels:

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Exhibition view at the entrance to ‘Circa 1970’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Photo: Carol Dixon (17 February 2017)

(1) Circa 1970 (November 17, 2016 to March 5, 2017) – a wide-ranging display of paintings, photographs and sculptures from the Studio Museum’s permanent collections illustrating the changing expression of African-American and wider African diasporan consciousness and socio-political activism by established and emerging artists during  the years 1970 to 1979. As this period represents significant transitions in black and brown American lived experiences and agency following the civil rights era in the USA, the scope and subject-matter of the artworks was highly reflective of an increasing sense of confidence and assertiveness that came through in sublime portraiture and figurative work by artists such as Beauford Delaney and Romare Bearden, but was equally also revealed in more overtly political works about the history of the Black Panthers, the rise of Black feminism/womanism, and the art-political activism of AfriCOBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists). This radical history was depicted in works by a diverse selection of artists: from Elizabeth Catlett-Mora (1915-2012)  and Norman Lewis (1909-1979), whose portfolios commenced during the Harlem Renaissance and concluded in the 1970s; through to former Studio Museum ‘artist-in-residence’ LeRoy Clarke (b. 1938, originally from Trinidad and Tobago), and Chicago-born feminist artist Senga Nengudi (b. 1943) – two avant-gardists who both initiated their most innovative work in the latter years of that pivotal decade.

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Portrait of a Musician (1970) by Beauford Delaney (b. 1901-1979). Acrylic on canvas. Photo: Carol Dixon (February 2017)

(2) The Window and the Breaking of the Window (November 17, 2016 to March 5, 2017) – an exhibition of hard-hitting typographic paintings, street photography and photo-portraiture documenting the history of public protests within African-American communities. The texts and images presented in the gallery reflected decades of documentation about how black communities in the USA, and African diasporans in the wider West, have risen up and spoken out with a strong collective voice against long-standing racialised injustices, acts of discrimination and cycles of violence meted out by police and other public officials whose unjust and biased policies and practices have blighted black lives throughout the African diaspora(s) for generations. Acts of protest and statements of resistance and resilience presented in works by (among others) Chris Ofili, Deborah Grant, Rudy Shepherd and Kerry James Marshall were some of the most powerful and provocative pieces in this bold, forthright and affirming display. Continue reading Circa 1970, and beyond, at the Studio Museum in Harlem (New York)

ALBUS – an exhibition of photography by Justin Dingwall and Thando Hopa (ArtCo Gallery, Germany)

South African photographer Justin Dingwall and lawyer and model Thando Hopa have recently collaborated on a new project featuring photographic portraits that address albinism as a key theme. Both the model and the photographer have created a series of poignant images that invite audiences to reflect on – and rethink – attitudes towards beauty, skin colour, corporeality and albinism as a condition caused by a lack of melanin in the skin that can affect people from every ethnic background.

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This image – titled,”GRAZIA” (2015) by Justin Dingwall , from the ALBUS series – recently featured as part of the ArtCo Gallery presentation displayed at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London (Somerset House, October 2016). Photo: Carol Dixon (8/10/16)

In addition to the presentation of these striking visual images, Dingwall and Hopa aim to inspire a public debate about the historical taboos that surround the subject of albinism, as well as  draw attention to the devastating levels of discrimination, threats of physical violence and actual bodily harm many people with albinism have experienced throughout history because of the superstitions that persist in some societies around the world.

Dingwall and Hopa’s series of photographs taken between 2014 and 2015 will be displayed in a new solo exhibition – titled, “ALBUS” (27 November 2016 – 13 January 2017)  at the ArtCo Gallery, Aachen, Germany.
Continue reading ALBUS – an exhibition of photography by Justin Dingwall and Thando Hopa (ArtCo Gallery, Germany)

Zak Ové’s Triumph at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London (2016)

The 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair presented its fourth consecutive edition at Somerset House in London (6-9 October 2016) – organised by the Fair’s founding director, Moroccan-born entrepreneur and art enthusiast Touria El Glaoui.

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“Blood Type” by Lizette Chirimme (from South Africa), displayed as part of Nando’s Art Collection at the 1:54 Art Fair in London. Photo: Carol Dixon
Coffee being served to visitors viewing Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo's Bandjoun Station display at the 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Carol Dixon
Coffee being served to visitors viewing Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo’s Bandjoun Station display at the 1:54 Art Fair. Photo: Carol Dixon

Expanding in size and scale by an increase of 40% since its inaugural edition in 2013, this year’s 1:54 showcased works by more than 130 artists from continental Africa and the global African diasporas, represented by 40 of the most important gallerists, curators, agents and exhibitors promoting African-inspired artwork around the world.

My main motivation for visiting 1:54 was (primarily) to view the new art installation by British conceptual artist Zak Ové (b. 1966, London) – an innovative sculptor, photographer and installationist of Trinidadian descent, whose artworks I have admired for many years since he first came to mainstream prominence in the UK following a series of high-profile commissions via the British Museum more than a decade ago.

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Zak Ove’s installation of 40 graphite sculptural figures in the courtyard at Somerset House in London, displayed as part of the 1:54 Art Fair 2016. Photo: Carol Dixon

Walking from the Strand through the archway of Somerset House on the Saturday morning of my visit filled me with sheer delight, because his vast assemblage of 40 larger-than-life-sized graphite figural sculptures – titled, “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness” (2016) – was instantly visible from the main road, positioned in a military-style formation like a modern-day version of the ancient Terracotta Warriors of Xian in China. The hybrid nature of the installation was the deliberate referencing of ancient and modern cultural, political and corporeal themes encompassing the vast historical and geographical scope of the African diasporas dispersed over several continents – from the fashioning of facial features reminiscent of West African (specifically Congolese) figural sculptures, through to each (male) statue positioned with raised hands in a supplicatory, non-threatening pose as if to adopt the stance of the 21st century #Black Lives Matter and #Ferguson is Everywhere anti-racism, equality and social justice movements in the USA and world-wide, articulating the plea “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!”

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Facial details of one sculpture from Zak Ove’s installation of 40 graphite figures, displayed at Somerset House in London for the 1:54 Art Fair 2016. Photo: Carol Dixon

Continue reading Zak Ové’s Triumph at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London (2016)

Walthamstow, Women and William Morris: Claire Twomey’s “Living Installation” in East London

I was fortunate to visit the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow (east London) this weekend to view a beautiful art installation by British ceramicist Claire Twomey before this temporary exhibition closed to the general public on 18 September 2016.

Detail from the contemporary ceramic art installation "Claire Twomey: Time Present and Time Past" (2016), nspired by the work of William Morris. Photo: Carol Dixon
Detail from the contemporary ceramic art installation “Claire Twomey: Time Present and Time Past” (2016), inspired by the work of William Morris. Photo: Carol Dixon
Photographic portrait of the artist, graphic designer, philanthropist and social justice campaigner William Morris. The original was taken in the 19th century.
Photographic portrait of the artist, graphic designer, philanthropist and social justice campaigner William Morris –  taken in 1857

The one-room installation – Claire Twomey: Time Present and Time Past (William Morris Gallery, 18 June – 18 September 2016) – was initially inspired by William Morris’s working drawing Chrysanthemum (1877) and took the form of a series of 150 ceramic tiles, each measuring 30 x 30 cm, placed on a large table covering the entire ground floor temporary exhibition gallery next to the museum’s café/restaurant

The enlargement and transformation of Morris’s 19th century floral design into a vast 21st century ceramic installation by Claire Twomey was a visual reflection of a poignant statement about temporality and the importance of tangible, inter-generational acts of cultural remembrance that William Morris wrote more than 120 years ago:

Design for Chrysanthemum (1877) by William Morris. This unfinished design is on display in Gallery 2 at the WMG (Walthamstow) and inspired Claire Twomey's 2016 installation. Photo: Carol Dixon
Design for Chrysanthemum (1877) by William Morris. This unfinished design is on display in Gallery 2 at the William Morris Gallery (Walthamstow) and inspired Claire Twomey’s 2016 installation. Photo: Carol Dixon

“The past is not dead, but is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.”
William Morris (1893) – quotation taken from the preface to “Medieval Love,” by Bartholomew Anglicus

Rather than painting all the individual tiles independently, the ingenuity of Claire Twomey’s artistic intervention was to make the new installation an entirely collaborative process – from the commissioning of digital technicians and expert tile makers from Stoke-on-Trent in the Potteries to assist with the initial digital transfer techniques onto blank white tiles, right through to extending an open invitation to local artists to volunteer as “apprentices” to help paint each individual tile periodically throughout the duration of the exhibition (over c.100 days) using a combination of regular enamel paints with muted colour tones of sage green, ochre, rusts and greys, and also over-layering thin coats of 22-carat gold enamel paint to create a subtly intricate floral mosaic with a spectacular, shimmering surface lustre. Continue reading Walthamstow, Women and William Morris: Claire Twomey’s “Living Installation” in East London