As I stood in front of Jelena Bulajic’s large-scale portrait of Alise Lange (2013) mesmerised by the network of fine wrinkles covering her face, my momentary thoughts merged with memories of another contemporary artwork that came back to mind in sharp focus – the image of Lubaina Himid’s topological art map, Thin Black Line(s) (2011).
In Bulajic’s work, her mixed-media artistic cartography of facial lines signified one elderly woman’s life history over several decades, and also served to illustrate the wider curatorial context to the London-based international group show of works by 14 women artists within which it was being shown – Champagne Life(Saatchi Gallery, London, 13 January – 9 March 2016). Although very different in its composition, Lubaina Himid’s artwork also mapped out women’s lives. However, rather than creating a close-up image of one woman to symbolise the complexities of our universal human condition, she chose instead to map diverse cultural and socio-political connections between several black British female artists from the UK’s African and Asian diasporas as a network diagram similar in appearance to Harry Beck’s topological map of the London Underground.
On 20th and 21st February 2015 Tate Britain hosted a two-day event to explore a number of themes about representations of African and Asian people and their diasporic descendents within European art history. The symposium was scheduled to complement the display ‘Spaces of Black Modernism: London 1919–39’ – co-curated by Dr Caroline Bressey and Dr Gemma Romain (The Equiano Centre, University College London), and currently on view at Tate Britain until October 2015.
Through a carefully assembled programme of talks, film screenings and audio-visual provocations the title ‘The Black Subject: Ancient to Modern’ was brought to life by a diverse group of scholars from the fields of visual arts, curating, art history and the social sciences – with each participant offering unique insights into changing representations of the black image within artworks from the Tate’s British art collection, other UK art institutions, and European museums and galleries more broadly.
Friday’s session featured a screening of Borderline (1930) – an avant-garde silent movie created by British film director Kenneth Macpherson, starring African-American actors Paul Robeson and Eslanda (‘Essie’) Robeson. The resulting Q&A critiqued the complexities of the featured relationships that addressed inter-sected issues about ‘inter-racial’ intimacy, gender identities, notions of belonging and sexuality ‘across the colour line’.
Saturday’s symposium was arranged into four chronological and thematic sessions, considering: (1) the ongoing tensions that can arise during the process of documenting the longevity of the black presence whilst simultaneously noting the continuous absences, erasures and distortions of African, Asian and diasporic contributions within British art history; (2) photographic images and illustrations of black Victorians sourced from a range of public and private archives; (3) two case studies about artists’ models from early 20th century and inter-war colonial periods – specifically the life of the Jamaican artistic model Patrick Nelson (1916-1963), presented in Gemma Romain’s paper “Patrick Nelson: Identity, queerness and love in the life of a black artists’ model in interwar Britain”; and the lives of Dr Roshan McClenahan’s famous Indian aunts ‘Sunita and Anita’ who both modelled for artist Sir Jacob Epstein; (4) re-imagining and pluralising the modernist canon as global, hybrid and ‘multi-polar’, envisioned via scholarship about the life and work of the Indian modernist Jamini Roy, presented by Professor Partha Mitter.