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

“At Home with Vanley Burke”: an immersive installation at the Ikon Gallery

Objects and artworks from Vanley Burke's archive.
Objects and artworks from Vanley Burke’s archive.

When curators of the recently opened exhibition at the Ikon Gallery invited audiences to feel At Home with Vanley Burke (22 July – 27 September 2015) I was  quite cautious about whether a mainstream British art gallery could create a welcoming space that centralised black British social, political and cultural narratives.  However, I immediately overcame my initial skepticism as soon as I stepped over the threshold of this innovative and sensitively curated installation about the life and work of Birmingham-based photographer Vanley Burke (b. 1951) – an artist, activist and cultural commentator widely regarded as the “Godfather of Black British photography.”

Items displayed in the "front room" of the Vanley Burke installation.
Items displayed in the “front room” of the Vanley Burke installation.

The exhibition – co-curated by Vanley Burke and Jonathan Watkins, with the assistance of Roma Piotrowska – features the entire contents of Vanley Burke’s flat in the Nechells area of Birmingham, carefully re-positioned and creatively displayed in five rooms throughout the 1st floor of the  Ikon’s contemporary exhibition space.

The presentation juxtaposes artworks from the photographer’s celebrated portfolio of documentary images and iconic portraiture with archival documents, political posters, news cuttings, books, records, furniture, clothing, household utensils,  ornaments and a variety of other ephemera collected and archived by Vanley Burke over more than half a century since arriving in the UK as a teenager from St Thomas, Jamaica,  in 1965.

A framed image of "Young Men on a Seesaw" (1984), by Vanley Burke.
A framed image of “Young Men on a Seesaw” (1984), by Vanley Burke.

Hundreds of cultural objects are assembled and displayed in five thematic sections that broadly correspond with the entrance hallway, kitchen, study, living room and bedroom of Vanley Burke’s home. Additional items are also positioned in the interstitial spaces connecting the rooms to form a seamless and continuous pathway through the exhibition.

A tinted studio portrait of Beulah Burke (1917-1981) from Vanley Burke’s personal archive.

From the large bevelled wall mirror positioned at the entrance to the exhibition, to studio portraits of family members displayed in the corridor areas,  a classic 1960s radiogram surrounded by kitsch, crocheted plastic doilies, and a floor-to-ceiling vinyl collection, much of this content evokes the “West Indian front room” aesthetics of post-World War 2 urban Britain.

Ceramic thimbles and miniature statuettes featuring the grotesque Roberson's "Golly."
Ceramic thimbles and miniature statuettes featuring the grotesque Robertson’s “Golly.”

 

 

However, these everyday objects are poignantly interspersed with more politically charged artworks and ephemera – including documentary photographs of racist graffiti painted on brick walls by the far-right National Front, the grotesque Robertson’s “Golly” featured on ceramic thimbles, soft toys and miniature statuettes, and a pile of rusting chains and instruments of torture from the enslavement era tightly packed into a small child’s wooden school desk. During a recent interview recorded for the exhibition in July 2015 Vanley Burke explained his reasons for collecting and archiving this type of material as follows: Continue reading “At Home with Vanley Burke”: an immersive installation at the Ikon Gallery

An interview with Professor Eddie Chambers – re. his new book, ‘Black Artists in British Art: A History from 1950 to the Present’ (IB Tauris, 2014)

On 2nd July I had the privilege of interviewing the artist, curator and art historian Professor Eddie Chambers while he was here in the UK to launch and promote his new book, Black Artists in British Art: A History from 1950 to the Present (IB Tauris, 2014).

Photo by Stuart Whipps; Courtesy of the artist and Ikon.
Photograph of the installation African Icons (1987) by Eddie Chambers. Installation image, 2014. As Exciting As We Can Make It: Ikon in the 1980s. Photo: Stuart Whipps; Courtesy of the artist and Ikon.

We met at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, where his installation piece African Icons (1987) was on display as part of a retrospective of works by UK contemporary artists – titled, As Exciting as We Can Make it: Ikon in the 1980s (2 July — 31 August 2014).

The focus of our conversation was an exploration and critical appraisal of the extent to which black British artists have experienced marginalisation and exclusion as regards their place within the nation’s contemporary visual arts canon, using Eddie Chambers’ own experiences of creating and exhibiting work since the early 1980s as a point of departure.

Continue reading An interview with Professor Eddie Chambers – re. his new book, ‘Black Artists in British Art: A History from 1950 to the Present’ (IB Tauris, 2014)