The Emergence of the Black British Artist

... In both British and international contexts, young second-generation artists in Britain represent an entirely new body of people. Of course, a distinct Black presence in Britain goes back hundreds and hundreds of years but, until the post-war years of Caribbean immigration, the Black population of Britain did not increase significantly. [According to Hansard, the parliamentary recording and information service, between 1955 and 1964, some 284, 517 West Indian immigrants arrived in the country.] When these new immigrants started to “send for” and have children, the “Black British youngster” was born. Although these young people as a cultural group did not previously exist, by the early to mid-1970s, their collective presence was unmistakeable. And simultaneous to their growing population, liberal sociologists, political commentators, college lecturers, and journalists wrote at length on their perceptions of the miserable and wretched social status of these Black youths. Time and time again, their existence was said to be characterized by underemployment, academic underachievement, alienation from parental values, and conflicts with the police. The “identity crisis” was perhaps the most cited condition with which these young Black people were labelled. A number of young Black people began to express themselves creatively, as evidenced by the exhibition Transforming the Crown. Some became actors and formed Black theatre companies such as the Black Theatre Cooperative and Temba. Some became singers and musicians, forming reggae groups, such as Steel Pulse, Aswad, and the Reggae Regulars. And some began to make film, video, and to paint and draw. Hence, the emergence of the Black British artist. Before 1980, major publicly-funded galleries and museums took little or no notice in Black artists’ work. Pioneering Black-led initiatives, such as the Drum Arts Centre and Keskidee Arts Centre, became established in the 1970s. In 1977, an exhibition of work by thirteen London-based Black artists travelled to the 2nd World Black & African Festival of Arts and Culture held in Lagos, Nigeria, where a group of London artists were represented: Winston Branch, Mercian Carrena, Uzo Egonu, Armet Francis, Emmanuel Taiwo Jegede, Neil Kenlock, Donald Locke, Cyprian Mandala, Ronald Moody, Ossie Murray, Sue Smock, Lance Watson and Aubrey Williams. [Perhaps one of the most fascinating of these artists was Sue Smock. She was an African-American artist born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1937. Schooled at Oberlin College, Ohio and Columbia University in New York, she travelled and exhibited widely. In 1977, she lived in London.]

… Similar to Into the Open, The Thin Black Line included lesser-known artist, such as Jennifer Comrie, Brenda Agard, and at the time, Maud Sulter – a diverse range of Black artists. These two exhibitions lead to the creation of a “community” of Black artists in London, who fostered an exchange of ideas crucial to all Black artists.

The above extracts are from an essay by Eddie Chambers - "The Emergence of the Black British Artist" - for the catalogue [pp. 77 - 79] to accompany Transforming the Crown: African, Asian, and Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966 - 1996, which took place at several venues in New York, in late 1997.