Things Done Change: The Cultural Politics of Recent Black Artists in Britain (2012)

1980s Britain witnessed the brassy, multifaceted emergence of a new generation of young, Black-British artists. Practitioners such as Sonia Boyce and Keith Piper were exhibited in galleries up and down the country and reviewed approvingly. But as the 1980s generation gradually but noticeably fell out of favour, the 1990s produced an intriguing new type of Black-British artist. Ambitious, media-savvy, successful artists such as Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili, and Yinka Shonibare made extensive use of the Black image (or, at least, images of Black people, and visuals evocative of Africa), but did so in ways that set them apart from earlier Black artists. Not only did these artists occupy the curatorial and gallery spaces nominally reserved for a slightly older generation but, with aplomb, audacity, and purpose, they also claimed previously unimaginable new spaces. Their successes dwarfed those of any previous Black artists in Britain. Back-to-back Turner Prize victories, critically acclaimed Fourth Plinth commissions, and no end of adulatory media attention set them apart. What happened to Black-British artists during the 1990s is the chronicle around which Things Done Change is built. The extraordinary changes that the profile of Black-British artists went through are discussed in a lively, authoritative, and detailed narrative. In the evolving history of Black-British artists, many factors have played their part. The art world's turning away from work judged to be overly 'political' and 'issue-based'; the ascendancy of Blair's New Labour government, determined to locate a bright and friendly type of 'diversity' at the heart of its identity; the emergence of the precocious and hegemonic yBa grouping; governmental shenanigans; the tragic murder of Black Londoner Stephen Lawrence - all these factors and many others underpin the telling of this fascinating story. Things Done Change represents a timely and important contribution to the building of more credible, inclusive, and nuanced art histories. The book avoids treating and discussing Black artists as practitioners wholly separate and distinct from their counterparts. Nor does the book seek to present a rosy and varnished account of Black-British artists. With its multiple references to Black music, in its title, several of its chapter headings, and citations evoked by artists themselves, Things Done Change makes a singular and compelling narrative that reflects, as well as draws on, wider cultural manifestations and events in the socio-political arena.

Things Done Change: The Cultural Politics of Recent Black Artists in Britain is available from Rodopi, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Abebooks, and other book sellers.


 

Things Done Change press responses

 

'Things Done Change' presents a clear narrative of [the] historical development of Black art in the eighties, showing the struggles and the triumphs of this challenging yet exciting period of Black art development. Eddie Chambers investigates the profile of Black British artists and interrogates why some were accepted and [others] rejected…

… A need for 'change' brought about the emergence of the 1980s generation of Black artists, but can the same be said for the favoured artists of the 1990s? Through acute observations, succinct arguments and coherent critical analysis, Eddie Chambers shows how art establishments rapidly have assimilated the 'new', making it the familiar, thus rendering it powerless.

'Things Done Change' left me thinking, how do we get back to the honesty of that exciting period of Black art and why is politics in Black art no longer in vogue during a time when the present generation [of Black people] is still vilified as scapegoats for society's woes? What will come from the next generation of Black artists and how will they respond? Will they be also be assimilated under the 'New' and silenced?

Kevin Dalton-Johnson, http://www.blackartists.org.uk/archives/699


 

Part art history, part cultural history, part historical analysis and part political excavation, this well-researched book is an indispensable intellectual addition to the burgeoning fields of black British art history and Diaspora studies more generally.

…Chambers invites others to engage with black British cultural production in inventive ways. His final emphasis upon “upcoming generations of artists keen to make their mark” can be extended to future generations of scholars keen to make their mark. Inspired by Chambers, these future critics will continue the development of new theoretical approaches.

Sword That Cuts Both Ways: The Celebrity and Disregard of Black British Artists, Celeste-Marie Bernier, http://iraaa.museum.hamptonu.edu/page/Sword-That-Cuts-Both-Ways


 

…Chambers is excellent at charting [the] change in the fortunes of black British artists, presenting and analysing archive material which has lain unexamined for years…

But Things Done Change is, to its credit, much more nuanced than the cursory reading sketched above. [Chambers] rightly criticises white-led, mainstream institutions such as the Arts Council, and white critics and curators for being, at best, politely confused and at worst patronising and divisive when it comes to discussing the work of black and Asian artists. But he is equally candid about the failings of black artists (of both generations) and curators.

… This then is a surprisingly measured account of the complex relationship between the works of black artists and the canonical structures of institutions, critics and curators.

Niru Ratnam, Art Review, September 2012


 

At its core, Things Done Change 'seeks to understand the ways in which both the construction and the perception of Black artists, Black images, and Black artists' practice all changed markedly over a period of time'. The period under scrutiny primarily spans the early 1980s through to the early 2000s. Over five chapters, Chambers fashions an expansive critique that sheds new light on a broad range of black artistic practice and contextualises the varied fortunes of black artists in the UK.

Things Done Change draws on a substantial range of sources, including exhibitions, media and academia, to construct a meticulously researched and in-depth critique. In so doing, Chambers provides lucid insight into the changing values and tastes of the (UK) art world, which have themselves been influenced by the shifts that have taken place across the UK's social, political and cultural landscape. In this regard, Chambers's narrative calmly positions the work and activities of black artists in relation to this broader context.

Richard Hylton, Art Monthly, October 2012.


 

Things Done Change: The Cultural Politics of Recent Black Artists in Britain provides a detailed account of the socio-political environment that black British artists faced in the 1980s and 1990s and their continuing effort to establish themselves as credible artists. It is a refreshing study that charts the transition from the initial interest in black art and black artists by various art institutions and individuals in the 1980s to the radically changed attitudes in the 1990s and beyond. This transition correlated with a change of government, different funding priorities and new challenges for the majority of black artists. The focus of the book is highly original: there have been too many nostalgic accounts of the achievements of generations of black British artists that reached a head in the 1980s but very little sense of the aftermath, leaving many questioning what happened to these artists. Chambers’ book takes a different (and more historical) approach to provide a coherent chronological narrative of the place of black artists in Britain up to the current day.

Rina Arya, Visual Culture in Britain, Volume 14, Issue 2, 2013


 

Few people could be better situated to take account of the history of overlapping British art scenes toward the end of the twentieth century than Eddie Chambers. Since the 1980s, he has been an engaged participant: artist, curator, critic, founding member of cultural collectives, and activist fighting against exclusionary practices in cultural institutions. Chambers has kept tabs on everything and everyone, and Things Done Change: The Cultural Politics of Recent Black Artists in Britain is founded not only on what he witnessed but also on his examination of the written record: exhibition publications, reviews, and other documents of the public record as well. (Reading this book's endnotes, one has to surmise that Chambers has overstuffed file cabinets, brimming with folders of original newspaper clippings, flyers announcing art shows, exhibition pamphlets and brochures that you'd be lucky to find in any archive, large or small.)

In title, Things Done Change nods to a popular musical touchstone: it references “Things Done Changed,” a track by African American rapper Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a Biggie Smalls) on his debut album Ready to Die (1994) that sold more than a million copies. Smalls's rap sits somewhere between a nostalgic lament and a jeremiad, and by name-checking it, Chambers tips us off about his mood on the subject at hand: the fortunes of black British artists who gained a degree of critical notice in the 1980s and those who, since the 1990s, are much better known and have attracted more widespread praise from mainstream commentators. In the former group are Sonia Boyce, Keith Piper, and the late Donald Rodney, and in the latter Chris Ofili, Steve McQueen, and Yinka Shonibare. Throughout Things Done Change Chambers contrasts “the issue based gravitas of the 1980s” (xxiv) that he locates in the work of Piper and Rodney, in particular, with the production of Ofili, McQueen, and Shonibare, which he reckons to be lesser and shallower. Chambers's admiration for Piper and Rodney is unmistakable and understandable: the three were prominent members of the BLK Art Group, founded in the 1980s, which mounted provocative group exhibitions in that decade...

Jacqueline Francis, Journal of American Studies, Volume 48, Issue 04, November 2014  


 

...In a chronological narrative, Chambers begins by considering the activists, discourses, and large-scale exhibitions that defined the 1980s as a period of black artistic production and promise in UK, though he clarifies earlier that his primary concern is England. He focuses on the dialogues sparked by two large group exhibitions—“Into the Open: New Paintings Prints and Sculptures by Contemporary Black Artists” (1984) and “From Two Worlds” (1986)—which, as Chambers argues, ostensibly granted greater visibility to black artists, while simultaneously limiting them to racially themed survey shows. Things Done Change criticizes the politics of a gallery system that, by turns, ignored, ghettoized, and selectively embraced black artists, while restricting their access to mainstream exhibition spaces. The text further argues that the “institutional embrace” and liberal state sponsorship of young black artists in the last two decades have been largely motivated by crass political expediencies and the racial ambivalences that typify these artists’ practices. In fact, Chambers argues that “celebrity artists” like Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare, and Steve McQueen were largely distinguished by and rewarded for the lack of sociopolitical (particularly racial) interventions in their work. The text closes with an ominous prediction that the current cohort of young black British artists may soon be overtaken by successors who may regard them just as dismissively as they had regarded their own predecessors...
 
Olubukola A. Gbadegesin, African Arts, Winter 2014, Vol. 47, No. 4, Pages 91-92
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... Things Done Change focuses on a conjuncture in recent times, the change from straightforwardly political art practiced in the 1980s to a more indirect, ironic approach in the 1990s, which Chambers ascribes partly to the influences of the political climate under New Labour and the increasing globalization of the art scene. That Chambers sees the development negatively is obvious from the headline of the last chapter: “Everything Crash”. His narrative is set in in the 1980s, which has appeared to be the high-tide of black British art. Chambers partly agrees: “Thus far, no moment in recent history has come close to replicating anything like the broad range of exhibition activity involving Black artists in the 1980s.” (219). Yet he also warns of overestimating the progress as compared to the work produced before. After a long introduction, the book is divided into five chapters. The first tells the story of important exhibitions of black art through the 1980s, leading up to the highlights in two mainstream galleries, From Two Worlds in the Whitechapel Gallery 1986 and The Other Story in the Hayward Gallery 1989 which brought public recognition to a large number of practitioners for the first time, with due praise given to the activists and curators making them possible. The second chapter turns to the 1990s, focusing on Labour’s policy of embracing – and de-politicizing - black artists with the help of the Honours System and honorary doctorates. 
 

.....The last chapter sums up the course of exhibition possibilities from the 1960s to the present, when the prospects for black artists - with the exception of the happy few - have dwindled for various reasons: exclusion from mixed shows, competition through increasing internationalism and the closing of a number of exhibition spaces, which once particularly promoted black art. 

Ingrid von Rosenberg, Technical University of Dresden, Germany, Reviews, The ESSE Messenger (The European Society for the Study of English)  26-1 Summer 2017 pages 67 - 82