Speech Acts// A Hidden Art History

Some months ago, back in July, BBC4 aired a documentary called ‘Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History’ which followed the fascinating stories of the artists and groups which are featured in Gallery 12 and perfectly highlights the significance of this exhibition. So, I have noted some key pointers of information which may come in useful for understanding more about this exhibition and for making interesting conversations with visitors. This week will start with some background information and the following weeks will explore artist profiles….

Various artists and curators explain throughout this documentary that in the decades between 1960’s- 1990’s, very little works by Black and Asian artists ever came into public view, due to a systematic discrimination in the art establishment. This mainly includes artists who were celebrated for a very short time and then dismissed almost as soon as they had hit the high- point of their career. So, the purpose of our exhibition was to exhibit these artists’ work alongside better known names such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and David Hockney, as a way of; “Calling on the art world to reflect the nation that we’ve become and place these works at the centre of British modern art history”.

 Gallery 12

Gallery 12

Many of the works that we display in this exhibition are on loan from Cartwright Hall in Bradford, a small gallery described in the documentary as a “living gem of British art”. This Gallery contains 100 more works by artists of Black and Asian descent than the Tate’s national collection and has been collecting them since the 1970’s. Hammad Nassar, who curated Speech Acts explains “This collection was not started in the 2000’s, or the 90’s or even the 80’s, but from the 70’s, when these artists were mere blips or being forgotten. But, here’s a gallery that’s been acquiring them for 40 odd years.”

Nima Poovaya- Smith, who is a curator from Cartwright Hall, explains how and why she started the collection “I just sort of plunged into it, as I have plunged into many things, with slight recklessness. I never saw myself as a pioneer; I looked at this and thought, if these works are not captured in public collections then there’s going to be a huge distortion of history. It was common sense, not poineering. It was common sense to collect.”

 Cartwright Hall Art Gallery © Bradford Museums.org

Cartwright Hall Art Gallery © Bradford Museums.org

Caribbean painters and sculptors had felt their work was initially embraced; the people from ex- colonies came over with a huge sense of optimism, joining an international modern art movement. From the mid 1960’s, international artist had brought avant- garde ideas into the heart of the establishment. The artists we exhibit here were at the time, esteemed and discussed in artistic circles; beginning their careers with lots of promise.

However, exclusion and racism in the art world became noticed; anything exotic and ‘other’ about the art was rejected and excluded from group exhibitions. So, in an aim to combat discrimination, artists formed a ‘Caribbean artist movement’ putting on group exhibitions in London. The art establishment never let them move beyond the label of being Caribbean artists.

Artists Eddie Chambers and Donald Rodney responded to racial tensions in Wolverhampton, as part of a group of students whose came together after their tutors said there was no such thing as ‘Black Art’. So, they invented it “we call ourselves simply black artists because we try to deal specifically with those issues of imperialism and colonialism”. Their work was raw and angry, filled with political slogans and racist imagery, designed to shock Britain, they called themselves the ‘Black Art Group’. Originally called ‘Wolverhampton Young Black Artists’, they established their group in 1979-1984, key members were Keith Piper, Marlene Smith and Claudette Johnson.

 Gallery 12

Gallery 12

“There was a desire to work in a collective way, to come together in a group and to feel it was a powerful way to work”- Johnson.

“I genuinely thought that we were going to be changing things through the work that we were doing”- Smith

“It was a time when everyone was forming collective and they were forming in response to that moment of… you had the rise of the discontent, the rise of thatcher, the rise of the far right… and that was just around here. What was happening in the West Midlands in terms of recession…”- Piper.

 Gallery 12

Gallery 12

The group’s early work was considered too radical for the time and very few works were collected. Artist Sonia Boyce, who has previously exhibited her work at MAG, met members of the Black Art Group at ‘The First National Black Art Convention’, this convention is seen as what has now become the Black Art Movement. “They were all making work about growing up and being in Britain and honestly it was like some sort of fractal thing that had gone through my brain, literally seeing this work and thinking wow!”- Boyce.

“There was so much energy, so much enthusiasm and the aim was to get the work out there, get the conversation out there and so in that way we succeeded”- Johnson

Watch the full documentary here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bcy4kd/whoever-heard-of-a-black-artist-britains-hidden-art-history?suggid=b0bcy4kd
Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History, (24/07/2018), BBC4, BBC