Iniva’s origins in the early 1990s can be traced back to the pronounced emergence of Black British artists in 1980s Britain. (For the purposes of this text, ‘Black British artists’ is taken to refer to British-born, British-raised or British-based artists whose backgrounds lie in the continents and regions of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.) The 1980s were, relatively speaking, years of unprecedented activity for Black artists in Britain. Previous decades, going back to the 1960s, had seen a number of important visual arts contributions at certain, mostly London-based galleries by artists who had come to Britain in the early to mid-twentieth century, often from countries belonging to the former British Empire. These included Grabowski Gallery (1959–75), which was attached to a pharmacy on Sloane Avenue in Chelsea and showed artists such as Frank Bowling and Aubrey Williams in solo exhibitions and, equally importantly, in mixed group shows, particularly in the early 1960s. Elsewhere in London, other pioneering spaces – including Gallery One (1953–63), founded by poet and dealer Victor Musgrave; New Vision Centre (1956–66), co-founded and directed by South African painter Denis Bowen; and Signals (1964–66), co-founded by Filipino artist David Medalla – opened their doors to Commonwealth and other international artists, and were instrumental in setting up global networks of artistic exchange.
The 1980s, however, produced a new generation of artists, for the most part British-born; the majority were, or were to become, art school graduates. As such, they presented themselves as an intriguing and confident new presence within the art scene, manifested in a number of group exhibitions held throughout Britain. The earliest exhibitions signalling this new presence were initiated by art students such as Keith Piper and, in time, Marlene Smith and Donald Rodney. Exhibitions such as ‘Black Art an’ done’, held at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in 1981, unequivocally sought to assert the tangible notion of a ‘Black art’ that existed to respond to the realities of the lives, challenges and struggles of Black people, at home and abroad.
… Though to a lesser extent other funders played a part, the Arts Council funded much of this bold, brassy and new activity, on something of a piecemeal basis. Though continuing to encounter notable resistance or indifference, Black artists of the 1980s looked to be tearing up the ‘British art’ script. In this endeavour, artists were aided by their own cogent, insistent voices, as well as those of activists and advocates such as [Rasheed] Araeen and [Gavin] Jantjes, who were calling for greater recognition of changes and developments that they felt had long been taking place in British art but were only latterly gaining halting recognition. Jantjes asserted that Black British artists represented a hitherto largely unacknowledged yet compelling fusion of experiences, histories, sensibilities and identities that meant there were many reasons why their work should be taken seriously and institutional support for them provided with more certainty and commitment. Araeen, meanwhile, had, for a number of years, been arguing that Black artists’ work needed to be viewed and engaged with through mechanisms radically different to the dominant framings. In his writings and activism, he sought to offer a profoundly different interpretation of Black artists’ contributions to art history and the contemporary art scene, whilst simultaneously taking to task what he regarded as the art world’s discriminatory pathologies. Further, he contended that culturally ingrained prejudices on the part of the art establishment prevented Black artists from taking up rightful positions within the mainstream of British art, and that the pronounced institutional gravitation towards seeing Black artists’ work as ‘ethnic arts’ did a grave disservice to the most accomplished amongst these practitioners.
… A small number of Black British artists, within a larger pool of British artists, have of course found fabulous success in the international arena, but it is difficult to avoid the somewhat dispiriting conclusion that internationalism (or particular manifestations thereof) has failed certain artists, no less than state-sponsored and cack-handed notions of diversity have likewise failed certain artists. The defining characteristic of the internationalism of which Iniva is now a part is the hierarchical blueprint of the hegemonic art world. There is within Iniva’s programming little or no conceding or transferring of curatorial power, thereby ensuring that hierarchies of power and privilege remain intact. Iniva has moved away from being a dynamic hub from which a variety of exhibitions, publications, residencies and other art projects were initiated, with a range of partners, and become a somewhat lumpen organisation, practising a dull top-down approach to its projects, with little to nothing in the way of lateral working relationships and collaborations.Iniva today is a crash of confusions, contradictions, rigid hierarchy and institutionally mandated cultural difference: it perhaps goes without saying that it has failed those for whom it was, in part at least, established.
The full version of the above text by Eddie Chambers was first published in Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, Issue 39, Summer 2015: 50-59. It was subsequently republished in Art and Its Worlds: Exhibitions, Institutions and Art Becoming Public, Afterall, Central Saint Martins, 2021