London: Back to Black, exhibition review

Finally, after decades in the wilderness, the 1970s are back in a big way. In 2005, popular culture is in many ways dominated by a 70s aesthetic. It’s cool to love the 70s. 70s music, 70s fashions… Even 70s television has been repackaged as the latest cinematic entertainment. In the popular imagination, whatever was naff about the decade (for older people) has morphed into what young people (many of whom were born in the 1980s or 1990s) now find most fashionable. Who’dathought it?

Into this “I love the 1970s” popular culture space steps Back to Black – Art, Cinema, and the Racial Imaginary, a large exhibition [Whitechapel Art Gallery; June 7-September 4, 2005] put together by curators David A. Bailey from the UK, Richard J. Powell from the USA and Petrine Archer-Straw from Jamaica. The exhibition’s curatorial thesis is bold and challenging: to demonstrate that a strong vein of Blackness – worthy of specific and continued art historical attention – ran through much of the art, photography, cinema, and music of the 1960s and 1970s. Back to Black further seeks to assert the existence of curatorial and art historical linkages between 1970s artistic production in the UK, the USA, and Jamaica.

… For the most part, Back to Black pays homage to the incredible and potent work of the Black Art(s) Movement from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. Within the USA, this episode has previously been celebrated in exhibitions such as 19 Sixties: a Cultural Awakening Re-evaluated, 1965-1975 at the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles in 1989, and Tradition and Conflict: Images of a Turbulent Decade 1963-1973 at The Studio Museum in Harlem in 1985. Indeed, much of the fine art and photography in Back to Black put in an appearance in one or both of these American exhibitions. For British gallery audiences, however, virtually all of this work is previously unseen. Back to Black thus presents a valuable and important opportunity to appreciate first-hand and close-up, the work of artists such as Elizabeth Catlett and David Hammons.

The full version of the above exhibition review, written by Eddie Chambers was published in Art Papers, Sept/Oct 2005: 59-60