The issue of diversity within British art is a big problem. Numerous reports have shown over and over again how overwhelmingly white and middle-class the creative arts are in the UK and things don’t seem to be improving. Black British artists historically haven’t gotten enough props from the British art world and they still don’t. It’s only a select few that get to be truly celebrated and revered.
In the last 18 months I’ve been thinking more about the visibility and representation of black artists in British art, as well as how much art I view and consume from black artists. If you asked me to name 10 British BAME artists off the top of my head I wouldn’t be able to do it, and that bothers me, because if you asked me to name 10 white British artists, I’d quite honestly do a much better job.
I noticed there was a strong black art presence particularly late in 2014, with several exhibitions, shows and events coincidentally happening during and around October, aka Black History Month. For example, the work of Nigerian photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode was shown at Tiwani Contemporary from September to November; Charlie Phillips’ crowd funded exhibition ‘How Great Thou Art: 50 Years of African Caribbean Funerals in London’ at Photofusion in November; the third solo exhibition of Britain’s award-winning artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen was held at the Thomas Dane gallery in November; the Pippy Houldsworth gallery exhibited the work of American artist Carrie Mae Weems and Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu’s work was shown at the Victoria Miro gallery. Not to mention that the ever-popular third annual 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair also took place at Somerset House in October.
I attended as many of these shows as I could but couldn’t help notice that most of these exhibitions showcased the work of mostly black American and other African diaspora artists. I decided to visit the Thomas Dane gallery on the last day of the Steve McQueen exhibition. It was a chilly Saturday afternoon in November. I slowly made my way into a dark room with a projector screen in the middle. When I entered there were maybe 10 people there, but the headcount soon increased to at least twice as much. All eyes were fixated on the screen, which continuously played McQueen’s new video work in a loop, a short film entitled ‘Ashes’. The work was unflinching and impressive.
But if this work hadn’t been produced by the Oscar-winning ‘12 Years A Slave’ director, would people have paid as much attention or shown as much interest? It’s questionable. What’s more, many people who are familiar with McQueen might not be aware of his background in art. I only learned this fact early last year when I watched an episode of the Culture Show on BBC2.
I spoke to art historian and author Eddie Chambers on the evening he delivered a talk at Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus based on his recently published book, Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s. The book is the first comprehensive study of its kind. In his presentation, he discussed some of the key people and moments within the black arts movement in the UK over the last 50 years. Steve McQueen is mentioned in it, along with Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili, two black British artists who have reached similar levels of recognition, somewhat of a ‘celebrity’ status. I asked Eddie about his thoughts on the recent string of exhibitions highlighting the work of black artists.
“I think it’s a positive thing that there have been many exhibitions recognising the work of black artists lately. Could it be a phase occurring seeing that Black History Month recently ended? I hope not. Ultimately I would like to see black artists just be considered artists as opposed to their work being racially and ethnically categorised, as is too often the case.”
According to Eddie, the reasons surrounding the apparent lack of recognition for black artists in art history are complex. It’s an uncomfortable truth, he says, “that many black artists have achieved their most pronounced visibility in ‘black’ exhibitions, or in festivals and commemorations that have an explicit or implicit raced agenda.”
This ‘othering’ of artists of colour it is highly problematic and even dangerous because it invites pre-loaded assumptions and categorizations regarding their work and/or artistic practice; e.g. that it must be concerned with issues of race, identity, politics etc. Whether the work actually addresses such issues shouldn’t matter to the extent that the ethnicity of an artist and social and political context of the work overshadows the work itself.
So, what does this mean for the new generation of BAME artists? Is it more difficult for them to achieve mainstream recognition and success?
Chantelle Nash, also known as NXSH, is a photographer, artist and the creative director of the ELDK collective (an acronym for East London Dope Kids). She always used art as a form of expression but never saw it as a career path growing up. Focusing on her photographic practice through her university degree allowed her to grow and develop her ideas, skills, techniques and find herself through art in her own time. It was only at this point, she says, that she started to believe that she could engage with art as a career and decided to go for it.
This is what she had to say when I put the above question to her:
“Yes, I do think it is difficult to gain mainstream recognition in the British art scene. Before I start going into the “politics” of things, just on a fundamental level we, black people, make up a small amount of the population in England. I think it’s somewhere between three and six percent; there is an even smaller percentage within the art industry so immediately that can be seen as an obstacle to face. Then there is the subject matter some black artists choose to work with; as artists of any race or cultural background we tend to make works in response to our lives, experiences, history (cultural and personal) and surroundings. Works from black artists based around the topics mentioned might not fit in with the visual ideals that the mainstream art world/ buyers wish to engage in.
However there are black British artists who have managed to break through to the mainstream doing just that, for example, Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare to name two.
In my opinion there are two types of people in the “art world”: The people who purchase art as an investment and the people purchase art because they appreciate the work or it moves them in some way. From my observations thus far it seems that in the mainstream art world there are more of the former than the latter so you can see where the problem comes in for the unknown emerging black artist.”
Award winning North London pencil artist Kelvin Okafor has made headlines for a while with his highly detailed, lifelike drawings. Okafor, who is of Nigerian heritage, remembers having a love and fascination for drawing with pencils at the age of 8 and spent most of his early years trying to utilize its technical use. Last Spring he had his first solo exhibition at the Albemarle Gallery.
Okafor is an amazing success story. As a leading young artist in his field who has won praise from celebrities and media outlets like the BBC and the Guardian, I was keen to pose the same question to him. These were his thoughts:
“I only think it’s difficult when someone from any race or gender (being of black ethnic heritage) limits themselves by thinking of lack, fear and injustice. I feel it’s extremely important to live like there aren’t limitations even when we hear it from others. I believe that with love, faith and dedication for something that one loves to do, anything is possible.
To be honest I try not think about how the artworld perceives my art through my ethnicity. I would like to think that my work speaks for me and itself.”
The Internet has been beneficial in enabling people to showcase their work on their terms, engage in important dialogues and create their own spaces in the art world. Zines such as Motherlands and OOMK and collectives like Lonely Londoners, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable and Variant Space are just a few brilliant examples of people who are actively working on and offline to challenge the status quo and make sure that marginalised voices are being heard. It’s not just the whiteness of galleries, museums and art institutions where our attention needs to be focused, but the whiteness that dominates art criticism and writing too. Too often, the work of black artists is discussed from a predominantly white perspective and it matters. ARTS.BLACK, an online platform that launched at the end of 2014, is worth mentioning here as it seeks to ‘further expand the places and spaces for critical thought on Black art’.
It’s an exciting time for the new generation of black artists in the UK even though the arts have become whiter. Not enough BAME artists get the support and recognition they deserve, even though it’s clear that they are just as cutting edge and contemporary as their white counterparts and are so much more than their ethnicities.
I’ll leave you with this final word from Chantelle.
“Fellow artists shouldn’t be discouraged by what I have said. Once you genuinely engage with the craft you love, it will be more than visible in the work you produce and the right people will gravitate towards it in time. That’s just my personal belief, my humble opinion, it has been working for me thus far. I haven’t had any mainstream “success” yet but if I do that will be why.”