Black British Art

... There has in recent years and months been a spate of important solo exhibitions, by the likes of Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid, and Claudette Johnson, adding layering and depth not only to the histories of Black artists in Britain, but also adding layering and depth to what we mean when we speak of ‘British Art’. The first retrospective exhibition by Sonia Boyce, took place, not long ago, at Manchester Art Gallery, from March to July 2018. In arguable contrast to the rewards and exposure accrued by artists such as Aubrey Williams, Sokari Douglas Camp, Frank Bowling, Permindar Kaur, Keith Piper, or Zarina Bhimji in earlier years, it might almost seem to us that present-day solo exhibitions take [the] pronounced visibility and celebrity rewards that really only started to be part of a bigger picture with the successes of Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare in the mid to late 1990s.[i] In early May 2017, it was announced that Himid was one of four artists shortlisted for the Turner Prize of that year. The other shortlisted artists were Hurvin Anderson, Andrea Büttner, and Rosalind Nashashibi. [ii]

The Tate Turner Prize press release stated that Himid had been shortlisted “For projects including solo exhibitions Lubaina Himid: Invisible Strategies at Modern Art Oxford and Navigation Charts at Spike Island in Bristol, as well as her participation in group exhibition The Place is Here at Nottingham Contemporary. The jury praised these exhibitions for addressing pertinent questions of personal and political identity. As a key figure of the Black Arts Movement, Himid has consistently foregrounded the contribution of African diaspora to Western culture. Working across painting, installation, drawing and printmaking, and bringing both old and new work together, her work is both visually arresting and critical.” [iii]

With The Place is Here taking its title from text in one of Himid’s pieces, and with her work very much being representative of the exhibition itself, it was not difficult to perceive the ways in which the accumulative weight of her recent exhibitions helped to persuade the Turner Prize jury of her worth, not only as a shortlisted practitioner, but indeed, as a winner. [iv] The dizzying trajectory in which success was heaped upon success was referenced in a number of media outlets and to this end, the following expression was typical: “It’s been a fantastic run of accolades for the Turner Prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid CBE who has been elected as a Royal Academician in the category of Painting at The Royal Academy of Arts.” [v]

The last of the three aforementioned artists to have important solo exhibitions, in recent years and months is Claudette Johnson. After an extended period of time during which her work was seen, enjoyed and appreciated by relatively few people, a major outing of her highly distinctive drawings took place during 2019 at Modern Art Oxford. I Came to Dance was heralded as “Intimate, powerful and sometimes deliberately uncomfortable, Claudette Johnson’s studies of black men and women demand attention and command respect. This show is an overview of one of the most accomplished figurative artists working in Britain today, and the first major institutional solo exhibition since 1990 of London-based artist Claudette Johnson (born 1959, Manchester).” [vi] One of the principal problems with an exhibition such as I Came to Dance and the ways in which Modern Art Oxford described it was that, conspicuous by its absence, was any reference as to why Johnson’s work had been subject to a nearly three decades long hiatus. What was it about Johnson’s work that deprived gallery-going audiences of substantial, stand-alone opportunities to see and appreciate her work? For numbers of Black British artists, sometime adulation might be [the] order of the day, but frank honest reasons for years or decades in the wilderness of the type of functional obscurity I mentioned earlier, are pretty much impossible to come by, not least from those in control of gallery spaces such as Modern Art Oxford. If we are somehow able to push such concerns aside, we are left with the sorts of media coverage that individual Black artists have secured, from time to time, going back many decades. From a substantial feature on Aubrey Williams, written by Jan Carew, for a 1959 issue of London-based publication Art News and Review, [vii] through to the flagging of Johnson’s I Came to Dance as one of 10 British Artworks (that you can see in Britain this month) in British Airways’ in-flight magazine High Life, August 2019,[viii] attention to Black artists’ work has, at least sporadically, taken place.

The above extracts are from Eddie Cambers, ‘Black British Art', a chapter in REFLECTIONS: Cultural Voices of Black British Irrepressible Resilience, published by Serendipity, De Montfort University, Leicester, 2020: 72-83

See also, http://www.eddiechambers.com/archive/reflections/

[i] For more on this, see Eddie Chambers “Chris, Steve, Yinka: We Run Tings”, Chapter 3 of Things Done Change: Cultural Politics of Recent Black Artists in Britain, Cross/Cultures series, Volume 144, published by Brill/Rodopi, 2012.

[ii] An exhibition of work by the four shortlisted artists was scheduled be held at Ferens Art Gallery in Hull as part of the UK City of Culture celebrations from 26 September 2017 to 7 January 2018.

[iii] www.tate.org.uk/about/press-office/press-releases/turner-prize-2017-shortlist-announced (accessed 25 May 2017).

[iv] It was announced on 5 December 2017 at the Turner Prize award ceremony that Himid was the winner

[v] https://www.artlyst.com/news/lubaina-himid-cbe-elected-royal-academician/ (accessed 2 September 2019)

[vi] https://www.modernartoxford.org.uk/event/claudette-johnson/ (accessed 2 September 2019)

[vii] Saturday, August 15th, 1959, Vol. XI No. 15, page 3.

[viii] HIGH LIFE magazine, August 2019, page 59. This was not the first time that HIGH LIFE magazine had taken an interest in a Black British artist. A reproduction of a work by Hew Locke graced the cover of the in-flight magazine’s August 2015 issue, which declared itself to be THE BRITISH ISSUE. Locke had been commissioned to illustrate the cover and had produced one of his images of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Pages 10-11 of the magazine carried a feature on Locke, describing him as “the celebrated contemporary artist [who has] created an image of the Queen from Britain’s national flowers.”