St. James Guide to Black Artists
Frank Bowling (entry written by Eddie Chambers)
… By the mid-1960s Bowling had taken the first of the innumerable transatlantic flights that have enabled him to maintain studios in both New York City and London. It was in New York, around 1966 that Bowling met, engaged with, and was influenced by abstract artists, both African American and European American. Thus began Bowling’s enduring love affair with modernism, something to which he has remained steadfastly loyal, decade after decade. He has been quoted as citing Clement Greenberg as a major influence on this important and seismic development in his painting: “Clem was able to make me see that modernism belonged to me also, that I had no good reason to pretend I wasn’t part of the whole thing.” The central and pivotal esteem in which Bowling places modernism is evident in his statement that “I believe that the black soul, if there can be such a thing, belongs to modernism”.
It is perhaps this attachment to modernism that makes Bowling, particularly within a British context, a unique artist. He has consistently refused to rule himself out of the main currents of contemporary international art practice. Herein lies one of his most interesting aspects. As a black artist, he confounds and frustrates stereotypes of what work he should be producing or might be expected to produce. Through his painting, he relentlessly expresses the view that for him, art should not be burdened down by considerations of race, racism or racial/national identity.
Bowling’s earliest abstract paintings have been described as consisting of “thin, luminous washes infused with metallic pigment, often dripped or poured.” He also experimented with acrylic gels, applying liberal quantities of paint to create undulating, tactile surfaces in which he embedded an assortment of objects. It was perhaps these paintings, reminiscent of large wall maps detailing the altitude of terrain, that prompted one observer to suggest that “Bowling’s paintings are not landscape, but land.”
Lubaina Himid (entry written by Eddie Chambers)
Himid is a wide-ranging artist whose work embraces many themes. It has been observed however, that her work falls into three basic areas: satires of white society, satires of white and European cultural orthodoxies, and celebrations of the creativity and resourcefulness of black people. But Himid’s work does more than simply satirize and celebrate. Through her paintings she challenges dominant and oppressive versions of history, and in so doing, continually seeks to rescue black historical figures from an ever-threatening obscurity. Typical in this regard is her 1987 work, “Scenes from the Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture,” a watercolour and pencil series in which she depicts scenes from the life and legend of the eighteenth-century military commander and revolutionary, known as the “Guilded African,” the eighteenth century military commander and revolutionary who occupies a respected position in black history.
Himid’s work also has the aim of challenging and undermining patriarchal systems and modes of thought and behaviour. To this end, she regularly employs humor, often producing caustic renderings of her tormentors in the form of cutout wooden figures. One such figure depicts a white man as a facile clown, with a carrot on a stick, chasing a black woman. Another earlier piece shows a white man, with an enormous penis, masturbating. Out of his penis comes the filth of the world: warfare, destruction, pornography, and exploitation.
Perhaps some of Himid’s strongest work is that which celebrates the resilience and determination of black women. Her We will be (1983) consists of a wooden cutout figure perhaps - Harriet Tubman. The lower part of the woman’s dress is a visual cacophony of defiance and black pride. Central to the piece is the text “We will be who we want where we want with whom we want in the way that we want when we want and the time is now and the place is here + there.”
Tam Joseph (entry written by Eddie Chambers)
At the same time, however, Joseph has contributed a number of memorable paintings that locate themselves at the centre of sociopolitical commentary, often making work that shocks as it amuses, amuses as it shocks. Typical in this regard are paintings for which he is universally loved and respected, such as Spirit of the Carnival and UK School Report. The latter piece, subdivided into three portraits, shows the passage of a black youngster through the British non-education system. In the first portrait the neat and tidy lad is “good at sports.” In the second portrait the best that his teachers can say about him is that he “likes music.” The third is inevitable: a few years of underachievement at school have put him on the “other” side of society and he “needs surveillance.”
A more recent body of Joseph’s work indicates another one of his unpredictable shifts in artistic direction. The work in question, collectively titled Great White was described by Hiroko Hagiwara as “a series of picturesque and illusory landscapes, which induce us to quiet reflection” and signal a “move towards a more contemplative body of work.” Hagiwara notes that “it may seem odd that an artist of Afro-Caribbean origin, should paint [sea]scapes of blue water and white shining icebergs”. In truth, Joseph has always struck out on his own course. But witty takes on black “problems” or black “issues” continue to be the most engaging aspect of his practice. White House Killings is a recent painting that recasts the traditional tourists’ map of Washington DC. Peppered throughout the northwest, northeast, southeast and southwest quarters of the capital, literally surrounding the White House, are dozens of tiny figure motifs. It is only when we look closer and reference the figure motifs that we realise each one represents the “location of killings in 1991.”
Joseph, though a champion of artistic independence, never forgets his African heritage. His Africanness is the starting point for his work; from there he can move in any direction he wants. As Joseph himself was quoted as saying: “I use total experience. I use every bit of what I see; almost every bit of what I know, to bring out something, but it’s not coming from just one experience.”
Eddie Chambers (entry written by Petrine Archer-Straw)
In the past decade Chambers’s vision for black art has been realized through a collaborative curatorial approach that inverts the hierarchies normally inherent in exhibition practices. At once curator and artist, he has engaged the works of a number of black artists in order to create exhibitions that explore and engineer a larger picture of black history and identity. Whether in the form of the one-person shows of Eugene Palmer (1993), Michael Platt (1994), and Lesley Sanderson (1995) or in the larger group shows such as Black Art: Plotting the Course (1988), The Dub Factor (1992), and Black People and the British Flag (1993), these exhibitions have all contributed to Chambers’s exploration and demonstration of a black aesthetic both nationally and internationally.
But Chambers is by no means an advocate of black separatism. His aim is to challenge Western art’s cultural exclusivity and, more specifically, to ensure the visibility of black art in Britain. Further, his curatorial work addresses social issues in an attempt to critique British social and political life. Whereas earlier exhibitions such as The Slaughter of Another Golden Calf (1985) and The Black Bastards as a Cultural Icon (1985) interrogating history, his later curatorial work, as with Us and Dem (1994), has examined contemporary social and political issues and agitated for a reevaluation of black-white relations within British culture.
Chambers has brought the same confrontational style to each of these exhibitions, but his methods of communication have become more considered. Buy paying careful attention to the conceptual and documentary evidence of his exhibitions, he has come to channel his artistic creativity into the selection, design, and presentation of the work. It is a curatorial role that he considers necessarily interventionist to the end of promoting a politicized art, at once narrowing the gap between black art curating and art making and between black issues and British audiences.
The full versions of the above texts appeared in the St. James Guide to Black Artists, 1997. Published by St James Press, Detroit, in association with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, St. James Guide to Black Artists features biographical and career information, as well as concise critical essays, on nearly 400 of the most prominent Black artists of the 1990s. Approximately 75 percent of the artists profiled were alive at the time of publication. Also included are a small number of important artists from the nineteenth century. Eddie Chambers wrote the entries on Frank Bowling [p. 65], Lubaina Himid [pp. 245 - 246] and Tam Joseph [p. 291]. Eddie Chambers as an artist and a curator is represented in the St. Guide to Black Artists, in an entry [pp. 103 - 104] written by Petrine Archer Straw.