Sword That Cuts Both Ways

The Celebrity and Disregard of Black British Artists

Celeste-Marie Bernier

Lubaina Himid, Moments and Connections 2011. Courtesy the artist

1980s Britain witnessed the brassy, multi-faceted emergence of a new generation of young, black-British artists.  Practitioners such as Sonia Boyce and Keith Claudette Johnson, Trilogy, 1982-86.Piper were exhibited in galleries up and down the country and reviewed approvingly.  But as the 1980s generation gradually, but noticeably fell out of favor, the 1990s produced an intriguing new type of black-British artists.  Ambitions, media-savvy, successful artists such as Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili, and Yinka Shonibare made extensive use of the black image (or, at least, images of black people, and visuals evocative of Africa), but did so in ways that set them apart from earlier black artists.  Not only did these artists occupy the curatorial and gallery spaces nominally reserved for a slightly older generation, but with aplomb, audacity, and purpose, they also claimed previously unimaginable new spaces.  Their successes dwarfed those of any previous black artists in Britain.  Back-to-back Turner Prize victories, critically acclaimed Fourth Plinth commissions, and no end of adulatory media attention set them apart.  -- From the publisher's announcement.

The triumphs the “star” artists and the challenges of their fellow black artists are examined by art historian Celeste Marie-Bernier in the two reviews that follow.

Eddie Chambers, Things Done Change: The Cultural Politics of Recent Black Artists in Britain, New York and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012

 Part art history, part cultural history, part historical analysis and part political excavation, this well-researched book is an indispensable intellectual addition to the burgeoning fields of black British art history and Diaspora studies more generally.

One of the leading international researchers, curators and artists of the African Diaspora, Eddie Chambers debates and interrogates under-examined, and often under-developed, theoretical paradigms of 20th and 21st century, black British visual art. Chambers examines these photographs, paintings, sculptures, mixed-media installations and murals within contexts of exclusion, under-funding, penchants for lumpen “group shows” and vaunting the “star” artist to the neglect of equally-talented others. Eddie Chambers, Things Done Change: The Cultural Politics of Recent Black Artists in Britain, New York and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012

Tracing largely-ignored patterns of influence and exchange across decades, he exposes the dominant fallacy that black British art is a recent and/or static phenomenon and he challenges the notion of black British art’s “moribund existence.” And he complicates the typical analyses of Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili and Steve McQueen by showing that this dominant triumvirate of black British art is not the exception. Their paradigm-shifting work is positioned in the mass-media as if originating in a “Year Zero.” Chambers restores missing earlier, and no less groundbreaking, black British artists including the following photographers, painters and mixed-media installation and performance artists: Lubaina Himid, Keith Pippin, Claudette Johnson, Marlene Smith, Rasheed Araeen, Maud Sulter, Sutapa Biswas, Donald Rodney, Chila Burman, Gavin Jantjes, Tam Joseph, Godfried Donkor, Eugene Palmer, Sonia Boyce, Mona Hatoum, Ingrid Pollard, Vanley Burke and Mowbray Odonkor, among many many others. These forerunners also include the author himself. Chambers was a key founder of the BLK Art Group in the 1980s.

Chambers extends his analysis further back into the distorted and all but eradicated annals of black British art history to debate the pivotal historical, political, social and aesthetic contexts of even earlier and often forgotten pioneers Frank Bowling, Ronald Moody and Aubrey Williams, to name but a few. Into the Open poster, 1984, based on a portrait photo of Houria Niati.  Mappin Art Gallery  ©Museums Sheffield

For Chambers, a key difficulty regarding the mapping of the cultural politics of recent black artists in Britain arises from the missing archive. As Chambers warns, any scholar of black British art history encounters a social and political reality characterized by terrible destruction. Masquerading as ideologically neutral, the racist biases of a white dominated art world have done extensive and sometimes seemingly irrevocable damage to black British art history by ensuring widespread underfunding, critical neglect and a wholesale dismissal of works repeatedly and falsely categorized as “angry” or as solely issue based and, therefore, as works important solely for their political content rather than for their display of an array of experimental artistic practices.

Chambers also takes to task the willful distortion of the forgotten many whose practices have either been subjected to damagingly oversimplified readings. Working with little knowledge of black British art history, African American art history, or the visual arts of the African Diaspora more generally, white critics typically have remained blindsided by race as a default filter of interpretation. An emphasis upon what these critics see as “burdensome racial imagery and equally burdensome racial narratives” and as produced by artists whom they categorize as “angry” has led to the perpetuation of flawed critical paradigms. Far from being dogmatic or prescriptive, these artists’ imaginative, experimental works have been inserted into narrow confines which has resulted not only in the stultification, but in the near annihilation, of black British Art history.Sonia Boyce, Rice N Peas, 1982.

With this exemplary work breaking new intellectual ground, Chambers is clearly in the vanguard of black British art criticism. The book’s reproductions of artworks and exhibition announcements also help to reconstitute the history of this field.

Chambers invites others to engage with black British cultural production in inventive ways. His final emphasis upon “upcoming generations of artists keen to make their mark” can be extended to future generations of scholars keen to make their mark. Inspired by Chambers, these future critics will continue the development of new theoretical approaches.

Viewing the "Invisibilized"

Lubaina Himid, The Carrot Piece, 1985.

“I was hungry to show with other black women to see whether there was a conversation to be had amongst ourselves around showing space, political place and visual art histories, how to develop ideas around making, visual representation, belonging and identity.” So explains black British artist, Lubaina Himid, regarding her role as a curator of the sculpture, prints, photographs, installations and paintings produced by contemporary black British women artists since the 1980s. One such particularly powerful “conversation” is Thin Black Line(s), a provocative display curated by Himid that was on view at the Tate Britain, August 2011-March 2012.

Revisiting her earlier groundbreaking exhibitions held in the 1980s - and variously titled Five Black Women, Black Woman Time Now and The Thin Black Line – Himid brought her own installations together with the no less dynamic and forceful mixed-media photographs, pastel drawings, paintings, sculpture and installation work by Maud Sulter, Claudette Johnson, Veronica Ryan, Ingrid Pollard, Sutapa Biswas and Sonia Boyce. Regardless of their status as seminal black British artists and recent recognition at the Tate, all seven women have been subjected to difficult contexts of underfunding and marginalization which have failed to do justice to their original and imaginative bodies of work. And yet, as their eclectic and experimental photographs, sculptures, paintings and installations demonstrate, this difficult backdrop is far from the whole story. As artists not only committed to a practice of what Himid describes as “visibilizing the invisible” regarding the hidden histories and legacies of slavery, colonialism and empire, these artists adopt experimental techniques that add stunning artistic dimensions their expression. As Biswas emphasizes, “My works are conceptually driven, but their formal aesthetic is always a determining presence.” Sutapa Biswas, Housewives with Steak knives, 1985.

Lubaina Himid’s delicately drawn map, Moments and Connections (2011) offers a radical start to the exhibition by echoing Howardena Pindell’s determination to defy white mainstream attempts to tokenize black women artists. Powerfully ensuring that audiences will not leave with a sense that Sulter, Johnson, Ryan, Pollard, Biswas, Boyce and Himid herself are the sum total of Black women artists working in the UK, Himid maps the tangled yet scarcely excavated genealogies and routes/roots of black British art history more generally. This map is reproduced in IRAAA, vol. 23, no. 4). Joining these seven artists, therefore, are Brenda Agard, Elizabeth Eugene, Marlene Smith, Jennifer Comrie, Houria Niati, Chila Burman, Mumtaz Karimjee, Jean Campbell, Andrea Telman, Margaret Cooper and Cherry Lawrence whom she inserts into a rich array of black British artists, theorists, exhibitions, archives, and gallery spaces.Preparation of Thin Black Line(s) exhibit at the Tate Britain

As a substitute for “the text we might have installed all over the walls in the space,” Himid confirms that this map “exists, like everything else we do, as part of our embattled research project to bring neglected histories back into the visible where they belong.” Visually riffing off the grid-like structure of the London Underground Map, Himid’s Moments and Connections encourages audiences to “mind the gap” regarding the social and political realities generated by what Eddie Chambers describes as a widespread “whitewashing” of black British art history. Refusing to leave it there, she includes two vitrines crammed with exhibition leaflets, letters, artist statements, reviews and catalogues as well as a video display showing a film directed by Susan Walsh and which treats the viewer to hundreds of works by black British women artists.

“It suited us to show alongside each other, presenting a whole variety of beliefs, life choices and philosophical narratives,” Himid says, leaving visitors under no illusions that the paintings, installations, photographs, sculpture and drawings on view are in any way representative of the total work produced by black female artists in Britain.

Beginning with Maud Sulter’s Polyhymnia (Portrait of Dr Ysaye Barnwell), Thin Black Line(s) opens with a photographic work from Sulter’s Zabat series (1989-90). Here, Sulter’s black female subject directly confronts the viewer in the guise of Polyhymnia, the legendary Greek muse who purportedly gave song to the gods. Directly engaging with myth and symbolism to declare the black woman’s proficiency for art-making, this work encourages viewers to acknowledge black female agency and authority.

Continuing in this vein of reimagining empowered black female subjects, Claudette Johnson’s series of life-sized watercolor, gouache and pastel works, Trilogy - Part One (Woman in Blue), Part Two (Woman in Black) and Part Three (Woman in Red) (1982-86), rejects the widespread spectacular consumption of black female bodies within the dominant culture. Emphasizing psychological complexity over any potential physical commodification, black female individualism is salient in Johnson’s visual poetics. “The black women in my drawings are monoliths,” Johnson observes, “Larger than life versions of women, invisible to white eyes and naked to our own.”

By comparison, as works engaging more explicitly with issues of self-portraiture and storytelling, Sonia Boyce’s pastel drawings, Rice n Peas (1982) and Mr.-Close-friend-of-the-family pays a visit whilst everyone else is out (1985) refuse to shy away from difficult and taboo subject matter related to undramatized narratives of black female adolescence, sexuality, familial life and domesticity, more generally.

A challenging and hard-hitting work, Himid’s The Carrot Piece (1985)consisting of two life-sized cut outs symbolically frames an open door way at the back of the exhibition space. On the left, a white man is balanced on a tricycle as he dangles a carrot on the end of a stick while on the right a black woman confronts him with an ambiguous, seemingly masked expression. Blurring the boundaries between oppressor and oppressed, victim and victimizer, Himid gets to the heart of black diasporic histories of trauma and terror by laying bare white determinations to effect black subjugation “by any means necessary.”

Sutapa Biswas is no less engaged with acts of subversion and play. Her mixed-media paintings, The Pied Piper of Hamlyn – Put your money where your mouth is (1987) and Housewives with Steak knives (1985) similarly draw upon competing mythologies of race, nationhood and identity to destabilize, invert and contest dominant power hierarchies. “All art forms are political and must be read within a socio-historical context,” she says. “Much of my work is satirical and insists upon the multiplicity of meaning. One of its intentions is to re-assess, question and re-write that history which belongs to imperialism.”

Contesting the powerful ways in which pastoral re-imaginings of the British landscape repeatedly collude in fallacies of a normative whiteness, Ingrid Pollard experiments with a slippery relationship between text and image in her Pastoral Interlude series (1988) from which Himid has selected No. 4 and No. 5 for display. Across these works, Pollard reinforces her powerful insertion of black men and women into these dramatic vistas and includes haunting statements (such as “death is the bottom line) testifying to otherwise invisibilized contexts of violence and violation. The owners of these fields; these trees and ship want me off their GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND. No Trespass, they want me DEAD.”

Relying upon abstract sculpture as her preferred medium, Veronica Ryan’s Relics in the Pillow of Dreams (1985) no less rejects any seeming utopian premise to provide a haunting emphasis upon terror and trauma. Objects resembling hand-grenades and weaponry rest on her “pillow of dreams.” As intent as Pollard upon confronting black diasporic experiences of dislocation and loss, Ryan explains that she is “trying to establish a sense of place both historically, culturally and psychologically.”

A major intervention and tour de force, Lubaina Himid’s Thin Black Line(s) foregrounds the “invisibilized” tradition of black British women artists and bears witness to Marlene Smith’s declaration, “I am trying to make an image of a Black woman… Do you know her?” and to Himid’s own rallying cry, “WE WILL BE/ WHO WE WANT/WHERE WE WANT/ WITH WHOM WE WANT.”

Celeste-Marie is a professor of art history in the UK who follows the black British art scene.