Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s (published July 2014, reprinted 2015)

Black artists have been making major contributions to the British art scene for decades, since at least the middle of the 20th century. Sometimes, these artists – with backgrounds in the countries of Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia – were regarded and embraced as British practitioners of note and merit. At other times, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, they were not. In response, on occasion, Black artists came together and made their own exhibitions or created their own gallery spaces. In this book, Eddie Chambers tells the story of Britain's Black artists, from the 1950s onwards, including recent developments and successes. 

Black Artists in British Art represents a timely and important contribution to British art history. Utilising substantial and hitherto little-accessed bodies of archival material, Chambers avoids treating and discussing Black artists as isolated practitioners, wholly separate and disconnected from their counterparts. Neither does he seek to present a rosy and varnished account of Black-British artists. Instead, he explores and reflects on the very real difficulties that have faced Black artists throughout the decades of their practice. Beginning with discussions of the pioneering generation of Black artists such as Ronald Moody, Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling, who came to London either side of the Second World War, Chambers candidly discusses both the problems and the progress of several generations of artists, including contemporary artists such as Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare, now numbered amongst the country's most accomplished practitioners.

"Eddie Chambers’s Black Artists in British Art is a breathtaking tour de force. Brilliantly conceptualised, beautifully written and inspirationally theorised, this volume’s seminal contribution to art history is unparalleled. Tracing the lives and works of Black British painters, sculptors, photographers, mixed-media installation and performance artists over a vast time-frame, Chambers’ book sheds unprecedented light on a myriad of social, political, historical, philosophical, cultural and artistic contexts. A spectacularly well-researched and stunningly original volume, Black Artists in British Art is an exemplary scholarly feat, essential for researchers, students and general audiences alike, and one which offers yet further confirmation of Chambers’ reputation as the leading international scholar of his generation."
Celeste-Marie Bernier

Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s, press responses

"The first artist explored in Eddie Chambers’ fascinating book... is a great surprise: Joseph Johnson, a seaman in the Merchant Navy until he was wounded, discharged and became a busker nicknamed ‘Black Joe’…  This portrait shows ‘Black Joe’ supported by crutches and wearing a model of the seafaring military vessel Nelson perched on his cap. Very adroitly, Chambers links him with Yinka Shonibare RA, whose admirable and widely hailed sculpture on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square was unveiled two centuries later.

… In 1988 [Sonia Boyce] became the first British-based black artist to have a show at the Whitechapel Gallery. Soon artist and writer Errol Lloyd was exclaiming, ‘For the first time in Britain black women artists are exhibiting together’, thanks to exhibitions curated by Zanzibar-born Lubaina Himid. Since then, as Chambers reveals in this enlightening book, they have played an ever more distinguished part in the vitality of British art."

Richard Cork, Paint it black, RICHARD CORK finds the first comprehensive study of black-British artists revelatory.  Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, No. 124/Autumn 2014: 37

 

"Central to Black Artists in British Art is the narrative of the persistent invisiblizing of Black artists in Britain on a continuum that charts the level of the art world’s openness alongside Britain’s immigration policy and the fluctuating temperature of race relations from the 1950s to today. What an organization such as the Black Cultural Archives invites, with its collection of ephemera, written and oral histories, photographs, and texts, is a way to look back at that history and access remnants of the very exhibitions, artists, and institutions that Chambers pinpoints in his text.

In the introduction, Chambers talks of a fall into oblivion for a great number of artists. He posits that even though each chapter in the book is centered on a group of artists working within a specific decade or particular moment, they all present a meta-narrative of “problems and progress.” Making this point again in the epilogue, the section focusing on contemporary practitioners, Chambers elaborates, declaring, “The history of Black artists in Britain reflects a steady and often predictable pattern, in which the fortunes of individual artists undulate, whilst the majority of practitioners have to settle for either fleeting visibility, or no visibility at all” (Chambers 2014, p. 195). Coupled with a chronic case of invisibility is the symptom of amnesia.

Not only have Black British artists throughout history been accorded relatively few moments of visibility, those occurrences have a tendency to be systematically forgotten about. Or rather, they have not entered into the national memory in a way that can inform subsequent generations. One of the side effects of amnesia, aside from the loss of a significant history, is for certain artists to be continuously cast as a discovery, novelty, or fashion. Those declaring, in 2014, the discovery of art from Africa may have thought twice were they aware of the exhibition Contemporary African Art, held in 1969 at Camden Art Centre in London. Which is why the significance of Chambers’ careful research and notation of the exhibition history of Black artists in Britain cannot be overstated."

The opening of the Black Cultural Archives’ purpose-built space in Brixton, London coincides with the arrival of Black Artists in British Art: A History from 1950 to the Present by Eddie Chambers – a book we have all been waiting for, says Hansi Momodu-Gordon 

 

How has global capitalist neoliberalisation and the rise of an international contemporary art world over the past 20 years changed – or challenged – accounts of black art in UK since the era of mid-20th century decolonisation? Eddie Chambers’s Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s offers an authoritative narrative likely to become the standard work. Chambers eloquently synthesises and structures an extensive literature of secondary sources, contributes a good deal of lesser-known primary material, such as exhibition catalogues, and provides a judiciously limited amount of accessibly written theoretical commentary. The book, as his subtitle emphasises, is much more of a history than it is a critique. Chambers’s overarching objective has been to bind together in a readable and continuous narrative an account of hundreds of artists working in the UK under markedly different societal conditions. This begins with, for example, modernists Ronald Moody and Francis Newton Souza in immediate-postwar ‘austerity Britain’ (that time around) and nearly ends with a celebration of what Chambers calls the ‘triumphant triumvirate’ – Chris Ofili, Steve McQueen and Yinka Shonibare – recipients, respectively, of turner Prizes and a Barclays Young Artist award (not to mention an MBE).

Black Artists in British Art actually starts and finishes, however, with different kinds of symptomatic qualifications and caveats which suggest that Chambers is aware of the persisting deep theoretical and political problems which subsist – neither suppressed but not much directly addressed – in his book…

His final chapter then turns to lesser-known if newly acclaimed artists, including Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Oladélé Ajiboyé Bamgboyé and Harold Offeh. Since the rise of the yBa and the emergence of global celebrity artists in the 1990s, some black artists have managed to attain the very highest tiers of success, lauded with awards, money and fame. They have done this, Chambers claims, through producing works that have undoubtedly transcended their ‘blackness’ while being rooted authentically in their own experience of and investment in it…

The great strength of Black Artists in British Art is its lack of a party line and an optimistic preparedness to manifest the tensions and contradictions that characterise the history of black artists' attempts to find a place in, or to displace themselves from, the British art establishment...

Jonathan Harris, Art Monthly, 386: May 2015: 36

 

If you told most art-world types you were interested in black British art, they might point you to Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili, Steve McQueen, and—maybe—a couple of others. That’s it. But if you really want to know about the history and context of this vital part of contemporary practice in the UK, Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s (I. B. Tauris) by Eddie Chambers is the book you need. Chambers writes an authoritative history of black British art, but also explores its fraught relationship with white, establishment institutions. While the early chapters focus on the postwar development of black British art by immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia, the concluding sections analyze the ways in which the political climate of Thatcherite and New Labour Britain made it impossible for ambitious nonwhite artists who rejected the visual shock-and-awe tactics of the YBAs to gain access to the mainstream, a problem Chambers was intimately familiar with as a member of the pioneering BLK Art Group in the 1980s.This book is thus a refreshing mix of the art historian’s meticulous archival work, the thrilling, blow-by-blow account of the eyewitness, and the impassioned, candid argumentation of the seasoned critic.

Chika Okeke-Agulu, Artforum, December 2015, page 94 https://artforum.com/inprint/issue=201510&id=56234

 

Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s is one of the most comprehensive studies to date of the history of black artists in the United Kingdom. It gives a clear sense of chronology without oversimplifying the ongoing challenges that black artists faced (and continue to face) in British society and in the art world. Presented in thirteen chapters, each detailing a different aspect of the journey, Eddie Chambers provides a context to the climate of black art but also focuses on issues that often are not granted sufficient coverage in mainstream studies of black art, including the place of black women artists, and the discussion of some lesser known artists. One of his aims is to claim attention for artists who made important contributions to the emergence and evolution of black art, such as Uzo Egonu, but whose significance has not been adequately documented. In many cases these artists have slipped into obscurity.

…Chambers’ book advances scholarship in tremendous ways by drawing attention to artists (both well and lesser known) and their achievements, and by detailing the events, exhibitions and connections between individuals and groups who were active during the postwar era. He pinpoints significant exhibitions that were crucial to the historical narrative and chronicles the efforts of numerous artists who contributed to the socio-historical background. By selecting certain artists for discussion, Chambers was doing at least two things: obviously, he increases our knowledge base about those in question, but he was makes the crucial point that black artists should not be bunched together as a mass of artists, as this not only skews their idiosyncrasies and working practices but falsifies their representation in history. It is erroneous to assume that all black art was about group action since many efforts took place on an individual footing as Chambers shows, and by close focus on named artists he is able to give them more attention than they would normally be granted in a study about black artists. Furthermore, the artists should be seen in their own right and by singling them out, Chambers is doing just that. He gives the reader a comprehensive (but not exhaustive) history of black art in Britain by emphasizing the significance of certain figures, many of whom have only come to be known posthumously. By drawing on artworks, archival material and contemporary sources, he presents a rich historical context that will be of interest to the general reader as it maps out the terrain systematically, and also to those more well versed in the field because of the fresh approach and new avenues of research. The meticulously detailed chronology of exhibitions, that begins with 1960 and ends with the summer of 2013, is invaluable. And he shows us that if the term ‘black art’ is going to meaningful then we need to accept its heterogeneity that accommodates its different perspectives and challenges, as well as acknowledging that it is a fluid aesthetic.

Rina Arya, University of Wolverhampton, Art History, journal of the Association of Art Historians, Volume 38, Issue 3, pages 582–584, June 2015


Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s is available from I. B. Tauris, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Abebooks, and other booksellers.

For blogs and other material on the book, see also, http://theibtaurisblog.com/2014/07/02/black-british-artists-celebrating-nelsons-ships/http://theibtaurisblog.com/2014/08/07/black-artists-in-british-art/http://www.artfund.org/news/2014/11/03/the-hidden-history-of-black-british-artistshttp://www.permindarkaur.com/text-chambers.html, and Google Books

Imprint: I.B.Tauris
Publisher: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd
Series: International Library of Visual Culture

Hardback
ISBN: 9781780762715
United Kingdom Publication Date: 30 Jul 2014
288 Pages

Paperback
ISBN: 9781780762722
United Kingdom Publication Date: 30 Jul 2014
288 Pages

Book cover: Godfried Donkor Slave to Champ II (new series), 2007, mixed media, collage on paper, 64 x 48 cm, Kindermann Collection © Godfried Donkor.​