| Reviews |
Black Artists in British Art
How has global capitalist neoliberalisation and the rise of an international contemporary art world over the past 20 years changed – or challenged – accounts of black art in UK since the era of mid-20th century decolonisation? Eddie Chambers’s Black Artists in British Art: A History from 1950 to the Present offers an authoritative narrative likely to become the standard work. Chambers eloquently synthesises and structures an extensive literature of secondary sources, contributes a good deal of lesser-known primary material, such as exhibition catalogues, and provides a judiciously limited amount of accessibly written theoretical commentary. The book, as his subtitle emphasises, is much more of a history than it is a critique. Chambers’s overriding objective has been to bind together in a readable and continuous narrative an account of hundreds of artists working in the UK under markedly different societal conditions. This begins with, for example, modernists Ronald Moody and Francis Newton Souza in immediate-postwar ‘austerity Britain’ (that time around) and nearly ends with a celebration of what Chambers calls the ‘triumphant triumvirate’ – Chris Ofili, Steve McQueen and Yinka Shonibare – recipients, respectively, of Turner Prizes and a Barclays Young Artist award (not to mention an MBE).
Black Artists in British Art actually starts and finishes, however, with different kinds of symptomatic qualifications and caveats which suggest that Chambers is aware of the persisting deep theoretical and political problems which subsist – neither suppressed but not much directly addressed – in his book. The penultimate chapter on this triumvirate is curt and reads, disconcertingly, as if Chambers is going through the celebratory motions. His final chapter then turns to lesser-known if newly acclaimed artists, including Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Oladélé Ajiboyé Bamgboyé and Harold Offeh. Since the rise of the yBa and the emergence of global celebrity artists in the 1990s, some black artists have managed to attain the very highest tiers of success, lauded with awards, money and fame. They have done this, Chambers claims, through producing works that have undoubtedly transcended their ‘blackness’ while being rooted authentically in their own experience of and investment in it.
A few black artists have thus gained entry to the world contemporary art pantheon. But the UK’s establishment art institutional attitude remained rejectionist and racist or, at best, callous and indifferent, Chambers argues, through to this pivotal moment in the 1990s when globalisation and a burgeoning world contemporary art market began fundamentally to transform the social relations and career life chances for all the artists in the UK – black or white. You didn’t have to be ‘British-born’ to win the Turner Prize, for example, just demonstrate an abiding abode in this country. The meanings of where an artist – or anyone else – could be said to be authentically ‘from’ or ‘belonged’ went through vertiginous destabilisation. Socio-psychological senses of affiliation and identity became radically reconfigured. The deliberate title to Chambers’s book (it is not ‘Black Art’) and his note on the propriety of uses of ‘black’ versus ‘Black’ (he uses the latter) – trying here to address US and UK readerships where the sensitivities and history significantly differ – indicate the deep political and emotional investment that underpinned the early efforts of black artists (and black communities) either fully to integrate into the supposedly commonwealth UK – in the 1950s and 1960s – or later to resist and demarcate a separate, and sometimes revolutionary, opposition to its racist, discriminatory social order, symbolised by the rise of ‘Afro-Caribbean’ and then ‘Black Art’ in the 1970s and 1980s. Keith Piper, radical black feminist artists including Sutapa Biswas, and Eddie Chambers’s own artworks embodied this latter polarity in the decade before the global contemporary art world erupted. Rasheed Araeen had attempted to theorise a concomitant
‘black aesthetic’ in his 1988 exhibition ‘The Essential Black Art’, although this nuanced statement was to be overshadowed by the relative media and critical acclaim garnered by his relatively pluralist show and catalogue ‘The Other Story’, held at the Hayward Gallery the following year (Reviews AM133). Chambers importantly details the attacks this selection and its inferred criteria were subject to by Biswas, who wrote a sharp review for New Statesman and Society.
The great strength of Black Artists in British Art is its lack of a party line and an optimistic preparedness to manifest these tensions and contradictions that characterise the history of black artists’ attempts to find a place in, or to displace themselves from, the British art establishment. But Chambers’s account itself is contradictory because it cannot resolve – and knows it cannot resolve – the contradictory aspirations of the individuals, groups and organisations that made up this history over more than 60 years. The book is more gripping, more true, when it deals with the struggles of black artists before the 1990s, because the intellectual, political, cultural and aesthetic stakes were so much higher. There was a contest still for the future of a cultural democracy in the UK that might be post-capitalist and post-imperialist. Open discussion of class and capitalism is almost entirely absent from Chambers’s book, left to be inferred from his accounts of black artists’ backgrounds, the art schools they got in to, the artworks they made or the political movements they joined. The ‘triumphant triumvirate’ signifies the victory of spectacular individualism born from the defeat of community. z
Eddie Chambers Black Artists in British Art: A History from 1950 to the Present, IB Tauris, 2014, pp288, pb, £16.99, 978 17807627 2 2.
JONATHAN HARRIS is professor in Global Art and Design Studies at Winchester School of Art. His forthcoming book Contemporary Art in a Globalised World: A Rough Guide is published by Wiley-Blackwell.
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