Beyond the Pale

... In a statement of profound optimism, focus and purpose, Roy Ayers (in a song written by Carl Clay and Wayne Garfield) sang “2000’s got to be Black”. The record in question - ‘2000 Black’ - was recorded and released a quarter of a century before the year 2000, thus signalling not only a belief in a bright liberated future for Black people, but also indicating the need for short, medium and long-term positive agendas, whereby we could confidently believe the future’s bright, the future’s Black. Looking back to the arguably unpromising period of mid 1970s America, we can appreciate something of the ways in which Clay and Garfield were looking beyond the then-contemporary position of Black people and envisioning a certain and inevitable achievement and fulfilment. The song was an invitation to Black people to “think about the future” and anticipate (as well as actively plan for) happier, redemptive times. At much the same time as ‘2000 Black’ was recorded, elsewhere in the African Diaspora, Bob Marley and the Wailers were exhorting us to “make way for the positive day”.

It is no coincidence that both of these profound redemptive sentiments were articulated in the mid 1970s. For Black people around the world, that particular period signified much in the way of hope and optimism, in spite of present difficulties. In the United Kingdom, the mid 70s saw the first signs of the coming of age of the ‘Black Briton’ - youngsters who were the children of Caribbean immigrants who had come to Britain over a period of a decade and a half from 1948 onwards. The 1980s saw a number of these youngsters developing significant careers and profiles as visual artists. Chief amongst them were the likes of Sonia Boyce and Keith Piper. Boyce, with her involved and ambitious oil pastel self-portraits and other depictions of Black women and men. Piper, with his vigorously-executed work that demonstrated what was, in a British context, a new Black attachment to distinct social and political narratives within art.

It could be said that across the globe, Black artists in the 1980s and 1990s made significant progress. In the New York of the early 1990s, thanks largely to the efforts of Thelma Golden, African-American artists were able, for a while at least, to storm the barricades of the Whitney Museum of American Art. In Sydney, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists were finally able to effectively demonstrate that their practice owed as much to modern/postmodern urban aesthetics as it did to the rural/dreamtime/dot paintings triangulation that often seemed to circumscribe the realities of their modern identities.  In the London of the late 1990s, two of the capital’s previously impregnable bastions of art establishment whiteness, the Serpentine and the ICA extended the ultimate validation - the solo exhibition - to two Black artists, Chris Ofili and Steve McQueen respectively.

These are necessarily brief, fleeting references, but much documentation exists, all over the place, to support and illustrate the progress that Black artists have made, over the past couple of decades. And yet, for Black artists and Black people alike, 2000 is far from being Black. Or, it’s not as Black as we’d like it to be. Because, despite the progress we’ve been making, white folks still ahead. Further, Black artists are in many ways (in the United Kingdom at least) currently in a collective and unbecoming position of disorderly retreat. Still marginalised, still excluded from almost anything you care to mention. Teaching positions, jobs in the visual arts, exhibition slots, etc. etc. What to do? What to do? What to do? 100 years ago, in the Forethought to his seminal publication, ‘The Souls of Black Folk’, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” It seems clear that in the 21st Century, within the visual arts and elsewhere, Black artists will continue to find that Du Bois’ prescient observation has an unfortunately enduring application...


The above extracts are from a catalogue essay "2000's Got to be Black" by Eddie Chambers, for Beyond the Pale (2000 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia)  Curated by Brenda L Croft pp. 15 - 19