Mainstream Capers

The Whitechapel Art Gallery recently opened its doors to Black artists with the quaintly titled “From Two Worlds” exhibition. Eight months earlier, the ICA was the venue for “The Thin Black Line”, another exhibition by Black artists. So, two of London’s (and indeed, the country’s) most prestigious galleries finally played host (reluctantly or otherwise) to work by Black artists. Five years ago, these exhibitions would not have happened; Black artists couldn’t even hope to command this sort of ostensible attention. Clearly, Black artists seem to be increasing their profile. 

Unfortunately however, one sobering factor prevents my jubilation at this apparently improved situation for our artists. This factor is my belief that both of the above-mentioned exhibitions, along with a score of others, have been organised and mounted on terms which are clearly not our own. By this I mean that the initiatives for these exhibitions invariably came from the white art administrators, whose publicly-stated motives are best described as being unconvincing. The real motives for such exhibitions lie somewhere between political expediency and liberal posturing. (Thus ensuring that exhibitions like “From Two Worlds” are organised and perceived as being concessionary acts of white charity and liberalism, rather than assertive acts of Black consciousness.) Clearly, any exhibition by Black artists that comes about merely as a response to white gestures can never really be on our terms.

But this in itself is an incomplete picture. It is not simply a case of Black artists being manipulated by white administrators. Administrators realise, all too correctly, that it would be unacceptable for they themselves to select Black artists directly. Instead, they select the selectors, who proceed to choose or reject artists as they see fit.

Thus we see the emergence of a three-tier system, which has the white administrators where they most like to be – at the top and in control. Similarly, the Black artists themselves remain where they are accustomed to being – at the bottom, manipulated and ignored, alternately. One of the most amusing factors in this situation is that white art administrators often accord Black selectors a minimal, derisory amount of respect.

The above extracts are from "Black Artists White Institutions: Mainstream Capers" by Eddie Chambers in Artrage: Intercultural Arts Magazine, Issue No 14, Autumn 1986: 31-34