Arts Essays - British Black Art

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Define Black art in Britain, examine its historical emergence in the1980s and what its status is today.

For the purpose of this essay I shall focus on artists (a painter, a critic and a filmmaker) whose works found prominence in the 1980s as well as the artists they inspired. These artists include Donald Rodney, Eddie Chambers, John Akomfrah and Chris Ofili. In my conclusion I hope to identify how important Black art was to its audiences twenty years ago and what can be expected of it in the future.

1980s Britain

Britain in the 1980s was a time of great social and cultural upheaval. The Prime Minister,Margaret Thatcher was in power and dominated the life of the country for adecade and a half. Her radical zeal affected, for better or worse, everyperson in Britain as she managed to single-handedly reduce the power of thetrade unions and privatise many state-owned industries. This was a decade inwhich high unemployment created ever-widening social divisions; and this wasemphasised by increasing frustration and anger at the political stance of thegovernment towards race relations and police brutality. The sparks of socialunrest set communities on fire during the riots in Brixton, Birmingham,Liverpool and Manchester.

Cultural critic Kobena Mercer explains this in his first book expressing that: Various factors contributed to the shifts of the 1980's which, if they can be traced to a single source, occurred outside the institutions of British society in the political events of 1981: 'riots' or 'uprisings', the term varies with your viewpoint [these] events had the symbolic effect of marking a break with the consensus politics of multiculturalism and announced a new phase of crisis management in British race relations.

Across thecountry there were similar protests as the children that were taught by thefree-thinkers of the 1960's suddenly found that they had a voice: the Americanairbase at Greenham Common was picketed by women protesting against nuclearwar; violent clashes between police and miners at Orgreave, South Yorkshire sawresentment at Thatcher's attack on workers' unions; and the riots at Wapping asmedia tycoon Rupert Murdoch forced thousands out of their jobs. When one looksback at the 1980s it is too easy to picture red braces, filofaxes and the 'greedis good' mentality.

The truth is that everyday people were experiencing oppression from the establishment and living with inter-community racism. This suppression was thrust into the open by the uprisings of the early and mid eighties, but it was also channelled by Black artists from the same communities that were being razed to the ground (for the purpose of this essay I shall include works of Asian, African, Caribbean and other ethnic minorities under the banner of 'Black art').

Black Art inthe 1980s

The 1980s was a defining period of art practice for many artists of the African, Asian andCaribbean communities in Britain; complemented by the art, events and issues ofthe inflammatory decade. These ethnic groups demanded a voice and a right tobe heard. The decisive incident was the 1981 Brixton riots and the publicationof Lord Scarman's report investigating the causes of it. Scarman identifiedone of the contributory causes as poor police relations with the blackcommunities.

A solution to this problem was to pour investment into black community groups. This investment by national government coincided with new initiatives by local government and the Greater London Council. There was now financial backing for the black community to debate issues such as patronage, public awareness, cultural difference, identity politics and artistic display. It was time for the new generation of black Britons to enjoy a freedom they had been promised. But it wasn't the first time that a black collective had been formed for the purpose to spread artistic values.

After the Second World War, Britain faced a crisis that would witness the biggest culturalchange of the nation since the Norman Conquest. Due to the crippling mortalityrate of the War there was a fear that the country would come to a standstill;something that was being witnessed on a daily basis through food rationing. Itwas decided that Britain would open its doors to members of its colonies tohelp the country get back on its feet again. By the time of the arrival of theS.S. Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks on 21 June 1948, there had been muchchange in the Empire itself and in the attitude of the people from thecolonies. In 1947, India and Pakistan had gained independence. The Windrushpioneers were thus coming 'home' to a place that was rapidly changing and wouldtransform British society forever.

These new arrivals brought their own language, art, music, stories and culture to a country that had appeared to outsiders as prim and proper (Victorian values were still being adhered to across the land). Suddenly the arrival of colonists from the West and East brought new identity to Britain; British art was about to be injected with cultural references from around the globe. The fundamental definition of Black art has been made by art curator and write Eddie Chambers: I would define Black art as art produced by black people largely and specially for the black audience, and which, in terms of its content, addresses black experience.

However, it was not until the establishment of the Caribbean Artists Movement in 1966that this new artistic revolution was to be discovered by the public. Founded bya Jamaican novelist (Andrew Salkey), a Barbadian poet (Edward Kamau Brathwaite)and a Trinidadian poet and activist (John LaRose), the movement included a fullcomplement of visual artists, Ronald Moody, Aubrey Williams, Althea McNish, ErrolLloyd and Winston Branch being the most prominent.

The Movement was created to increase the recognition of West Indian art forms within British society as well as wanting to branch out and create an aesthetic not solely informed by European ideology and they sought to revive this art form in an effort to create a new audience; the contemporary West Indians in London. Even though the Movement only lasted for five years it allowed works to be seen by a wider audience, albeit the majority of this audience were from the same communities that the artists hailed from.

Donald Rodney

The Caribbean Artists Movement inspired many artists and this included the British-born blackartist Donald Rodney. Born on 18 May 1961 in Birmingham, Rodney became a keyfigure in Black art in the 1980s. In 1981 he attended a Fine Art Honoursdegree at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham where he met conceptual artist KeithPiper. The following year Rodney joined a group of young black artists knownas the Pan-Afrikan Connection. This collective included Keith Piper,Marlene Smith, Claudette Johnson and Eddie Chambers.

They produced works that engaged the struggles of the black community in Britain including the First National Black Art Convention in Wolverhampton. In 1984 the Pan-Afrikan Connection changed its moniker to the BLK Art Group and held An Exhibition of Radical Black Art at the Battersea Arts Centre in London as well as the University of Birmingham. The following year Rodney had his first solo exhibition at Saltley Print and Media in Birmingham. The exhibition was entitled The First White Christmas & Other Empire Stories. It was not until the Handsworth Riots that Rodney found a modern cultural event to inspire his art.

To advertise his exhibition at the Black-Art Gallery in London, Rodney produced a poster that included photographs acquired from the British media coverage of the Handsworth Riots of 1985. In the centre of the poster is the image of a black youth holding a petrol bomb surrounded by photographs of Cherry Groce, the woman whose poor treatment by the police became the catalyst for the uprising. In the brochure accompanying the show Donald Rodney wrote: My work challenges the concept of art for art's sake and without any regret or any apologetic gesture to appease the liberal amongst you. Rodney followed this up with shows at the Young, Black and Here Exhibition at the People's Gallery and State of the Art: Ideas and Images in the 1980s at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Rodney had shown that his work was worthy of critical and public acclaim. By using the galleries in London as a medium for his work he was able to translate his images into the nation's psyche. Rodney had proved that Britain was ready to view British Black art as it was; harsh, powerful but truthful. Elizabeth Ann McGregor spoke about Rodney as: an activist but his highly intelligent use of appropriation and his own body gave him a distinctive voice. One of his contemporaries from the Pan-Afrikan Connection, Marlene Smith stated that: He produced a massive body of work, experimenting with form and approach, constantly questioning what art is for and how to make it. I have seldom met an artist more completely dedicated to his practice or more committed to the profession.

Eddie Chambers

Another member of the Pan-Afrikan Connection was curator and art critic Eddie Chambers. Hewrites regularly for Art Monthly where his articles and essays represent anuncompromising voice in the art establishment of the country. Chambers curatedthe landmark exhibition Black Art: Plotting the Course in 1988 as wellas organising the original Pan-Afrikan Connection shows in and around the WestMidlands in the early 1980s. His forthright views on how 'White' Britainartistic establishments are emphatically racist in their treatment towardsblack artists are well-known to those in the art world. This is typified inhis essay 'Whitewash' where he rebukes the British art establishment forits racism, claiming that at places like the Tate Gallery the only blackstaff to be found are those in security attendant's uniform.

In 1988, in an interview with writer and artist Rashid Araeen, Chambers was adamant that Black art had an important role to play in British society. He reiterated that: The function of Black art, as I saw it a few years ago, was to confront the white establishment for its racism, as much as to address the black community in its struggle for human equality. I think Black art has still that role to play. This feeling that the Black art movement cannot rest on its laurels is intrinsically clear throughout Chambers' career. Many of these issues that concerned the black artists of the time are still as relevant now.

Chambers was critical of Black artists who did not use their medium to express these struggles: Not every black artist produces Black art, and I used to castigate those artists who showed no interest in it. Now I don't.

Today Eddie Chambers is a professor at Bristol University and curates on Black art across the world. His dedication to a new artistic collective in the turbulent decade of the eighties enlightened many artists to continue producing innovative and exciting new work such as Guyanese-born photographer Ingrid Pollard's 1989 exhibition Pastoral Interludes in which a series of photographs subversively place solitary black figures in traditional English settings and then boldly appends text along the order of "... a lot of what MADE ENGLAND GREAT is founded on the blood of slavery, the sweat of working people ..." He also inspired much of Denzil Forrester's work, including the burial of a victim of police brutality in The Funeral of Winston Rose or the imagery of a black man surrounded by threatening police in Blue Jay.

John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah was born in Ghana on 4 May 1957. His parents were Ghanaian political activistsand important role-models to the young black filmmaker. He was educated inLondon and studied Sociology at Portsmouth Polytechnic where he graduated in1982. In that same year Akomfrah co-founded the London-based media workshop BlackAudio Film Collective with Lina Gopaul and David Lawson. Along the samelines as the Pan-Afrikan Connection, Akomfrah's aim was to 'address issuesof Black British identity and developing media forms appropriate to thissubject matter.'By far the most important film to come out of the 1980s was his 1986documentary Handsworth Songs.

The film looks at the 'historical, social and political background to racial unrest, and the reasons for the anger and disillusionment felt by many from the ethnic communities in Britain, particularly the Asian and West Indian.' The film was shot in Handsworth, Birmingham and London during the riots of 1985. Akomfrah also utilised 'found footage'; extensive newsreel and archival material ranging from shots of colonial labour through to images of Caribbean and Asian settlement. The film won seven international prizes, including the prestigious BFI John Grierson Award for Social Documentary and the Grand Prize at the Kaleidoscope International Film Festival.

When answering a question relating to the intended audience for his films he suggests that during the early 1980s it would have been possible to say that black film was made for black people and that the productions were framed with that audience in mind. Akomfrah is also a distinguished writer and critic, writing widely about African cinema and has been a member of the Arts Council Film Committee (and is currently a BFI Governor). He still directs for cinema and television and has been regularly cited as an important figure in promoting black artists such as director Isaac Julien and Steve McQueen. Akomfrah was a product of the Black art movement whose mission it was raise a voice in Thatcher's Britain.

This is best described by cultural critic Paul Gilroy: Many black artists in the eighties sought to express the 'essential' nature of what it was to be black in a racist society, and felt the 'Black art' was necessarily political and engaged with issues of social and cultural oppression.

Black Art Today

Twenty years on from the middle of the 1980s Britain is a different place in some aspects, butalso the same in many more. Gone is the Conservative Right governed byThatcher: demolishing unions; privatising state-owned industries; suppressingminorities; supporting the United States in all foreign policies; and promotingmaterialistic values, only to be replaced by a New Labour governed by TonyBlair: demolishing unions; privatising state-owned industries; suppressingminorities; supporting the United States in all foreign policies; and promotingmaterialistic values. However, one aspect that has changed is the public'sperception of art and its importance as social and historical documentation.

In London in 1997, the Saatchi collection was exhibited at the Royal Academy showcasingworks by young British artists. The art on show generated substantial mediacoverage and was even included on the front pages of the tabloid press. Theportrait of Myra Hindley by Marcus Harvey caused an outrage amongst thepopulation, but this in turn allowed a nation to experience modern art thatwould normally have passed it by. Included in the same show was artist, andfuture Turner Prize winner, Chris Ofili's Afrodizzia, Second Version. Thisparticular work of art caused a disgruntled artist to dump a wheelbarrow fullof manure on the steps of the Tate Gallery in protest, stating that ModernArt is a load of bullshit.He added that: "A real artist who can paint should have won theTurner Prize.

Ofili was born in Manchester in 1968. His parents are Yoruba-speaking Nigerians who emigratedto Manchester shortly before his birth. His most famous works centre aroundthe use of elephant dung within the work of art itself. It is widely reportedthat he first used elephant dung in his paintings while on a British Counciltravelling scholarship to Zimbabwe in 1992.Ofili's large paintings lean against the wall resting on tightly packed ballsof elephant dung, which he also uses on the canvas. In a tribute to the artsales of the Dadaists he set up a stall in street markets in Berlin and London andattempted to sell elephant dung to passers-by. He tells of his time atLondon's Brick Lane market: It was in the cheap part of the market wherepeople lay out old shoes and odds and ends. Bourgeois people go down to theflea markets on a Sunday afternoon and buy something off the poor. I wanted toplace myself in that situation. People were forced to think of the situationof me, a man of African descent, selling something exotic and unnatural. Therewas one guy hanging around, and when the crowds had died down he asked if I hadany dope.

Even though Ofili works with excrement his art is of a sublime quality and Gen Doy describes it as: that of sensual visual experience. The paintings glitter and dazzle in a real feast for the eye. Though they are not autonomous in the high modernist sense, they certainly offer a pleasurable experience of painterly construction to the viewer.

Another Black artist who has received acclaim is the video artist Steve McQueen. McQueen wasborn in London in 1969. He is a product of the Chelsea School of Art andGoldsmiths College. His films are often produced for the purpose of videoprojection in art galleries (video installation), include him as the subjectand often appear in black and white. His Turner Prize winning film Deadpan (1997)is a restaging of a Buster Keaton stunt in which a house collapses around anunscathed McQueen. This stunt was meticulously planned so that the faade ofthe house falls so that he is 'saved' by an open window that lands over hisbody. His films are poignant and the lack of any distinctive sound in themallows the viewer to interpret the images on a purely visual basis. It is hardto identify the social and political struggle of being a black artist in the1980s with McQueen's often slick production. However, the fact that he hasstruggled against a movement that is predominantly white shows that he has hadto overcome a rigid, almost racist system to get to the top. As such he is asimportant to the new generation of Black artists as Julien and Akomfrah were totheirs.

Cultural worker and critic Kobena Mercer has argued that What differentiates artists of the1990s - such as Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili, or Perminder Kaur - is that theshift away from the issue-based gravitasof the 1980s is a response toart world changes that have institutionalised the demand for difference.This change in Black art has run parallel with Britain's cultural changesto the black community as a whole. It would be incorrect to assume that allracism has disappeared and all people are treated equally, but it is certainlya more liberal and accepting society that we live in today.


It is interesting to note that Black art has continued to adapt to the society itfinds itself in. The 1980s were a time of oppression and cultural uprising.The Black artists of the time channelled their feelings through their art in anattempt to reach their own communities. Today the new Black artists arereaching audiences around the world. Artists such as Chris Ofili are heraldingback to their African roots. Steve McQueen has redeveloped original work fromthe Silent Age of Hollywood. Both are still Black British artists, and bothhave something to say about being Black in Britain.

There is a definite departure from the 1980s where the art was used as protest against theestablishment and the emphasis was about being Black in Britain. Today artistsare less insular than their 1980s peers and this is evident in their ability toidentify themselves not only as Black British artists, but as artists that areblack and British. There seems to be less of a struggle of cultural identityand more prominence on becoming recognised as an artist first. It can beargued that this is step backwards for Black culture, but a step forward forart. Is a Turner Prize winner valued more for who they are, or what they are?Does the Turner Prize winner have more power in the art establishment than apolitical artist had in their own community? If so, can this power be used topromote new Black British artists in the future? I believe this to be thecase.


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Mercer, Kobena (1994) Welcome to the Jungle: NewPositions in Black Cultural Studies Routledge

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Sirmans, M.F. ed. (1997) Transforming the crown: African,Asian and Caribbean artists in Britain 1966-1996 Caribbean Cultural Centre

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ArtNet Magazine on 15December 1998 from their website

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Tate Gallery interviewwith Marlene Smith on Donald Rodney on their website

Paul Gilroy speaking inPratibha Parmar's film The Colour of Britain (1984)