Opinions: On Black Art

NAME TEN CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS WHO ARE BLACK. Struggling? I know the feeling. Five years ago, (after I had taken an active interest in Black visual creativity) I’d have found it difficult to name more than one or two. In 1979, this supposed ignorance had to mean one of two things. Either Black artists simply didn’t exist, or, if they did exist, their activities were muted, shrouded, ignored. Now, five years later, there is much less excuse for ignorance about Britain’s Black artists. Of course, to varying degrees, their work still remains shrouded and ignored, but now, thanks to a number of persons and reasons, art by Black people is being acknowledged and recognised. Not jus by the art world, but much more importantly, by Black people themselves. The most recent indication of this acknowledgement was the self-appointed task of Sheffield’s Mappin Art Gallery to bring the work of contemporary Black artists ‘Into the Open’. 

The emergence of art by Black people has been a multi-layered process, at times difficult and controversial, both to the white (art) world and amongst Black artists themselves. However, in order to examine the state of art by Black people in 1984/5, it is first necessary to set into context and chronological order its emergence. Black artists, just like Black people in general, have long since been victims of racism and intolerance. The absence of art by Black people from the galleries and arts centres of Britain was (and often still is) justified by the view that what most Black artists produced was just not ‘good’ art, and ‘good’ art was what these places wanted to show. Similarly, commercial galleries weren’t prepared to handle work which they believed ‘wouldn’t sell’. Over a period of years, this rejection had the catastrophic effect of curtailing and minimalising the work of Black artists. Of this situation, in the November 1984 issue of Arts Review, wrote: ‘This lack of exhibition venues and opportunities had the effect of stifling artistic expression – thus preventing its development and progress. Many artists and potential artists ceased to produce work – having little motivation in this dead-end situation.’

The above extracts are from “Opinions: On Black Art” by Eddie Chambers, AN artists newsletter Magazine, February 1985: 10