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

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Navigating the Dreams of an Icon: The Cy Grant Archives at the LMA – a new heritage initiative for 2016/17

The Cy Grant Trust – working in partnership with the education charity Windrush Foundation  and London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) – recently received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to catalogue the archives of the writer, actor, musician, barrister and equalities campaigner, Cy Grant (1919-2010).

A photograph of RAF Flight Lieutenant Cy Grant.
A photograph of RAF Flight Lieutenant Cy Grant.

Cyril Ewart Lionel Grant (known as ‘Cy’) was born in Guyana in 1919 and served as a Flight Lieutenant and navigator in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War before settling in the UK to train and qualify as a barrister. As a result of the extreme racism encountered in post-war Britain, Cy was unable to pursue his chosen career in the legal sector, so instead sought work in the entertainment industry using his talents as a singer/songwriter, actor and musician – quickly rising to national prominence in the 1950s and 1960s as one of the few people of Caribbean descent to regularly appear on British television at that time. Over several decades Cy Grant made a substantial contribution to the arts and to broadcasting in Britain, always actively supporting fellow diasporan arts practitioners from Africa and the Caribbean to help them secure professional positions and contracts within British theatre, the UK film and music industries, and the wider literary and performing arts arenas. Continue reading Navigating the Dreams of an Icon: The Cy Grant Archives at the LMA – a new heritage initiative for 2016/17

Memory and Museums at “AfroEuropeans V” (University of Münster, Germany)

Earlier in September I was pleased to present a conference paper at AfroEuropeans V: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe (University of Münster, 16-19 September 2015) – the fifth biennial network event exploring socio-political issues and spatialities relating to histories of migration, diaspora formation, economic interdependencies and cultural links between Africa and Europe.

My contribution formed part of a diverse programme of speeches, panel presentations, structured debates and artistic performances that enabled participants to engage in wide-ranging, interdisciplinary dialogues about past and present-day life experiences of Africans and Diasporans in Europe, with a particular focus on the role of activism within academia.

Jamie Schearer (founding member of the European Network for People of African Descent) giving the opening keynote address at the AfroEuropeans V conference. 17 September 2015.
Jamie Schearer (founding member of the European Network for People of African Descent) giving the opening keynote address at the AfroEuropeans V conference. 17 September 2015.

The opening keynote address by political scientist Jamie Schearer (a founding member of the European Network for People of African Descent (ENPAD)) set an optimistic tone for the conference by outlining the many positive and tangible ways ENPAD was initiating effective advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns, publishing educational resources and providing safe spaces for discussing the many complex and challenging issues of race and racism(s) faced by Africans in Europe. Some of the most successful projects recently undertaken in Amsterdam, London, Warsaw and Berlin were foregrounded – including the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tours, the “# Ferguson is Everywhere” campaign, and wider political lobbying related to issues of police violence, racial profiling, and inequalities within systems of justice. Fittingly, we were reminded of key figures in German history and political activism who have made significant contributions to discourses on challenging  racism, xenophobia, stereotyping, anti-blackness, sexism and homophobia – not least the Afro-German poet and educationalist May Ayim (1960-1996), and the African-American writer and rights activist Audre Lorde (1934-1992). Continue reading Memory and Museums at “AfroEuropeans V” (University of Münster, Germany)

“American Policing: Lessons on Resistance” – Discussions at the Schomburg in New York

American Policing: Lessons on Resistance’ is the title of a panel discussion that took place at the Schomburg in New York on 18th February 2015 as a follow-up conversation to their recent town-hall-style debate on ‘American Policing: The War on Black Bodies’. The session featured wide-ranging commentary on issues related to police brutality, racial discrimination, ‘stop and frisk’/’stop and search’ policies, and community-led responses to the killing of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Aiyana Stanley-Jones and others in recent news.

Contributing speakers (from left to right): Mychal Denzel Smith; Cherrell Brown; Philip Agnew; Dante Barry; and Ashley Yates. Source: Schomburg Center, New York.

The panel discussion was moderated by writer Mychal Denzel Smith (The Nation), with contributions from the following four political activists and social commentators: Ashley Yates (poet and co-creator of Millennial Activists United), Dante Barry (Director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice), Philip Agnew (Co-founder of Dream Defenders) and Cherrell Brown (National Organizer with Equal Justice USA). Closing comments were also provided by Dr Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Central to the debate were questions about what justice might look like if black lives actually mattered in the USA; strategies for restructuring, de-militarizing and dismantling policing systems so that their historical origins in the States as organisations founded on the surveillance and restriction of the lives, mobilities and freedoms of black and brown people did not continue to perpetuate racialized discrimination; critiquing the complexities of campaigning against the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and the increasing monetization of incarcerated black bodies; envisioning safe communities; aligning anti-racist  political activism with wider education and culture agendas – including activism via the arts; routes into community-based activism and leadership for young people; self-esteem/’self-love’/self-care and spirituality issues within movements for social change; and effective ways to disseminate counter-narratives to help challenge the normalisation of privileged white citizenship to the detriment of others’ lived realities.

Continue reading “American Policing: Lessons on Resistance” – Discussions at the Schomburg in New York

Debates about “The War on Black Bodies” (Part 3) – some concluding thoughts on the arts in London

Anti-racism campaigners outside the Vaults show their opposition to 'Exhibit B'. 23 September 2014
Anti-racism campaigners show their opposition to ‘Exhibit B’ outside the Vaults in central London. 23 September 2014.

Following an extremely hard-fought and impassioned anti-racism campaign led by journalist and rights activist Sara Myers, the senior management team of the Barbican arts centre issued a formal statement on Tuesday 23rd September to confirm their cancellation of the controversial installation ‘Exhibit B – Third World Bunfight’ by South African ‘artist’ Brett Bailey, which was scheduled for display at the Vaults in central London from 23rd-27th September 2014.

A section of the Barbican’s statement read as follows:

“We respect people’s right to protest but are disappointed that this was not done in a peaceful way as had been previously promised by campaigners …We believe this piece should be shown in London and are disturbed at the potential implications this silencing of artists and performers has for freedom of expression.”

(Source: http://www.barbican.org.uk/ – News Release, dated 23 September 2014).

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Controversial tableau vivant from ‘Exhibit B’ (The Human Zoo)

Despite closing down the event, the Barbican have continued to reiterate that they consider ‘Exhibit B’ to be an important piece of anti-racist performance art which “critiques the ‘human zoos’ and ethnographic displays that showed Africans as objects of scientific curiosity through the 19th and early 20th centuries.” However, the nature of the live performance tableaux featured in this work – which present male and female actors of African descent shackled, enchained and imprisoned in cages with labels stating, “The blacks have been fed” – has led thousands of people (myself included) to question whether this (so called) performance art piece merely reinforces the barbarity and inhumanity of past colonial exhibiting practices in ‘Human Zoos’ without actually doing anything to challenge them, and (more importantly still) fails to achieve any anti-racist outcomes that have the potential to make life better for the communities of people still living with the impacts and legacies of that violent and traumatic history.

Continue reading Debates about “The War on Black Bodies” (Part 3) – some concluding thoughts on the arts in London