Arts - Black Artists and Race

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Black Artists and Race

Black Art Work

To begin with I would like to say that my essay is based on Black Art Work. Many people today would like to forget what happens at the beginning of 1980s and what it is the exact meaning of ‘Black Art’. Because they want to work with it and with out having any problems. This term may indicate a racial connection or imply the visual expressions of a race or its specific characteristics, but, as I argue here, this reading is not only simplistic but dangerously misleading for everyone and for Art work.

The real significance of the term lies in its specific temporality and historicity, which is often ignored even by those who write sympathetically about the work of black artists and their contribution to mainstream British culture. In fact to ignore this specificity and its social significance – which expresses not only a critical moment in the history of postwar British society but also a black experience and its articulation within the trajectory of postwar modernism – and to collapse it into whatever is produced by black artists is to undermine its historical importance.

However, when I was doing this research I found out that the allusion to ‘race’ in this specificity indicates an experience of a particular group of people or a community, which has resulted not necessarily from its own perception of itself but the way white society defines it by invoking its difference. I believe that this difference is of course there and is part of the community’s identity, but it is not important to what it says to in the modern world but what we believe. What therefore concerns Black Art is not so much this difference as how this difference is defined and experienced in a society that has not yet fully come to terms with its colonial past and its racial violence.

It seems that the intensity of this experience among some black art students was so great. It was this denunciation that underlies the emergence of Black Art in the early 1980s. It should not therefore be confused with the work of every black artist before and after this emergence.

Here I would like to first give a brief history of Black Art in Britain, describe its specific aims, objectives, and indeed its true vision, and then to see what was its achievement; and finally to ask how and why an art which began with a historically important radical position and agenda failed and collapsed into what has now become anything produced by non-white artists.

Although the idea of Black Art became widespread by the mid-1980s, as part of what is now known as the Black arts movement, comprising and encapsulating visual arts, film, photography, poetry, theatre, etc, my concern here is specific to various visual art expressions of Black Art.

What was particularly significant about Black Art was its ability to respond critically to the social and political forces of the time, and to set up an ideological framework for a militantly radical art movement. Its aim was to confront and change the system that, though centered in the West, put and dominated the whole world.

It was the time when in Britain, as well as in the US in particular, the political leadership turned to the right in order to explicitly re-establish its anti-socialist and imperialist agendas, with dire consequences for the world at large but also for the liberalism of the mainstream art world.

It was in this sociopolitical milieu, when many ‘avant-garde’ white artists – as they were thus deprived of their historical roles as the progressive conscience of Western liberalism – began to turn to their inner selves, cynicism and language-games, that Black Art in Britain came up with ‘a voice of humanity’, as some researchers wrote in 1982, ‘that refuses to be brutalized and in-sensitized’.

The amazing era of the Black Arts Movement developed the concept of an influential and artistic blackness that created controversial but significant organizations such as the Black Panther Party. The Black Arts Movement called for “an explicit connection between art and politics” (Smith). This movement shaped the most widespread age in black art history by captivating stereotypes and prejudice and turning it into artistic assessment.

Black art can refer to Art forms by persons of African descent. Specifically to the American, Australasian or European Black Arts Movement. Black magic even to the black art, a visual result in phase magic or to a chronological term for typesetting.

For Black Britain particularly, the decade brought modest applaud. The ‘riots’ of 1980 and 1981 seemed to confirm and solidify a marginal status for black British youth, whilst the injury of Cherry Groce and the death of Cynthia Jarrett likewise seemed to confirm an apparent cheapness of black life. All in all, it’s easy for us as a nation to imagine that the fractiousness and dissatisfaction of contemporary Britain has its roots in the things that happened to us in the 80s. We can’t quite put our finger on what’s wrong with 2005, but we have a sense that the 80s may well have something to do with it.

Keith Piper – ‘’Go West Young Man’’, 1996.

Customs and morals are not the same but this does not mean that I cannot involve myself and continue with my own life due to it being my decision to study elsewhere. I have discovered foreign artists living in other country’s who have based their own work on the way they have been up in their country of origin making this an advantage of discovering new ways. When I was doing my research I found out an artist called Keith Piper, a black artist who is important in organizing group exhibitions. He was part of and listened to the story of immigrants, involving himself showing photographs and text. I have chosen him as an artist because he is very important as a black artist. Drawing the bases of upcoming black art and artists he signify’s various points in his work.

This new publication Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain attempts to put a positive spin on the 80s, wrapping itself around the rather overblown claim that the decade saw ‘the Black Arts Movement burst onto the British art scene with breathtaking intensity, changing the nature and perception of British culture irreversibly’.

For the most part, the book (which grew out of a conference held in the US in 2001) consists of 13 essays by contributors such as Rasheed Araeen, Keith Piper, Lubaina Himid, Naseem Khan and Gilane Tawadros, supplemented by a selection of artists’ images from the 80s and a chronology of artistic, cultural and political events from 1960 to 2000.

The contribution that most stridently remembers the 80s as a decade of disappointment and errant behavior is Araeen’s essay ‘The Success and the Failure of the Black Arts Movement’. In the staining knockabout speech that has turn out to be his brand, Araeen waxes lyrical about the extensive cast of characters from the 80s that have grievously disappointed him. For Araeen, the decade got off to a bad start when a paper he presented at a conference in 1982, ‘Art and Black Consciousness’, was ‘received with coldness and indifference’.

His 80s then went from bad to worse with the presentation of a large-scale exhibition that, Araeen argued, ‘turned out to be a disgraceful display of black mediocrity and third-rateness’. One hapless individual who was a particular source of sorrow for Araeen is chastised for failing Araeen’s litmus test. This sorry character, having dropped ‘his radically confrontational position’, went on to adopt ‘a change of view that was contradictory to the aims and objectives of black art’. Modesty prevents me from putting a name to the said individual.

Chila Kumari Burman, 1992.

Authenticity refers to the honesty of sources, ascriptions, promises, sincerity, devotion, and intentions. Authenticity or Authentic may refer to Authenticity (art), which describes the perception of art as faithful to the artist's self Considerations of time and space in art-historical narratives which are vital to understanding the conundrum of representation faced by modern and contemporary African artists. Within global capitalist, contemporary culture, location and dislocation, hybridity and syncretism, and narratives of movement and translation abound. The space from which one speaks and the voice in which one articulates identity become critical factors in establishing measures of authenticity and value. Throughout the evidence that I have constructed, authenticity can be seen in and out of art and questions the originality of someone’s work. Authenticity is the ground of being genuine up to an extent. An authenticity style of art is described by an individuals experience of being authentic, substantial and genuine, controvert to being commercial.

What do these revelations about authenticity say about Africa as a constructed field of knowledge within the contemporary art world? As I argue below, in each case, the catalogue author-curators structure these concerns in distinctive ways — but, taken all together, they form an important lens onto a developing discourse. Nor is this discourse divorced from broader art-historical concerns. In fact, many of the questions under debate echo longstanding European understandings of artistry, creativity, authenticity, taste, and aesthetic value.

McEvilley ends his round-up by creating opposing camps that gloss over distinctive, sometimes contradictory, and often shifting views of critics, curators, and scholars within the field, pitting the Picton-Stanislaus-Forum-Nka crowd against the Magnin-Martin-Vogel-Pigozzi lineage.

After dividing, he seems to call for a détente, writing that "It seems unnecessarily quarrelsome for the disagreement to persist at all. Will the two streams of African-art-in-the-West come to coexist and complement each other?" This question may be addressed by the one major player he has surprisingly or perhaps deliberately left out of the picture: Simon Njami.

McEviiley's essay "How Contemporary African Art comes to the West" is a remarkable attempt to rewrite the discourse surrounding these arts as it has developed over the last fifteen years. While much of the writing accompanying these exhibitions has been concerned with defining modern and contemporary African arts (and the two are not the same thing), McEviiley's essay rereads these past efforts in a deliberate act of canon reformation.

He is chiefly anxious with appealing those serious of the Pigozzi-Magnin approach. Parsing his summaries of debates, curatorial choices, and critical writings in the field, it becomes clear that we are, in effect, entering "the ditches of some of the most elemental art-historical debates about authenticity, the limits of canonical ideals, and the subjective constructions of value and taste."

Taking everything into account by attempting merely to add to the status quo, the curators open themselves up to easy dismissal on grounds of quality. And that is precisely the tack McEvilley takes, structuring an argument against the purity and authenticity of the conceptual works in question that eerily parallels that of Sewell's rant against contemporary African productions cited above: "That these artists practice a diluted or 'weak' form of conceptualism does not go very far toward proving the existence of conceptual art in Africa.

Rather, it proves that conceptual art exists in the various non-African places where these artists were educated and live". It is easy to find modernism's founding myths of originality, belief in artistic genius, and pursuit of universalisms of form and meaning within these writings about Africa, contemporaneity, and artistic expression.


Araeen, Rasheed. (2007) Inverted Racism, Art Monthly, Issue 306, p39-40

Bonami, F., eds., (2005) Universal Experience Art, Life, and the Tourist's Eye, Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, p23

Chambers, Eddie. (2006) Black Is a Color, Art Monthly, Issue 294, p36-37

Coles, A., ed., (2000) Site specificity: the ethnographic turn, London: Black Dog Publishing, p1-13

Pnina Werbner, (2003) 'Introduction: The Dialectics of Cultural Hybridity,' in Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism, Pnina Werbner and Tariq Modood, eds., p22

Schäfer, Henning. (2004) A Celebration of Impurity, Locating Syncretism and Hybridity in Native Canadian Theatre, Textual Studies in Canada, Summer2004 Issue 17, p79-96

Werbner, Pnina. (2002) The limits of cultural hybridity: on ritual monsters, poetic license and contested postcolonial purifications, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 7 Issue 1, p133