Black Art Exhibitions in Britain

…The results of this farcical formula were not hard to imagine: a shambolic and incoherent exhibition that did justice to no-one and nothing. The crowning glory of [Into the Open] was the humiliation and contempt heaped upon us by Waldemar Januszczak of the Guardian, who, in a review of the exhibition, wrote “And all black art is no more worthy of our undivided attention than all white art”. Three years later, I’m still waiting for the Mappin to fulfil (if only in part) its promise to “follow up ‘Into the Open’ with a number of new, small and large scale projects”. They betrayed us.

As I mentioned, this precedent has been imitated many times over by white art galleries up and down the country. Realising that they could deal with the supposedly ‘troublesome’ issue of black artists in one fell swoop, these galleries have initiated and mounted (on their own arrogant and presumptuous terms) further pigeon-hole exhibitions. The list of venues is depressingly long, and includes the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Cartwright Hall, Bradford, Leicester Art Gallery, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, and most recently, the Cornerhouse in Manchester.

Quite possibly, if ‘Caribbean Focus Year’ had not happened, neither would a number of these exhibitions. Political activists such as Marcus Garvey, Fidel Castro, Walter Rodney, and Maurice Bishop had done much to revolutionise the lives and culture of the Caribbean working classes. But Caribbean Focus entirely disregarded the political forces of the region and instead chose to portray and locate the Caribbean as being a catchment area of coloured people, sea, sand, and sunshine. An insult of colossal magnitude. This retrogressive view of the region was evident in the visual art exhibitions that were organised under the banner of, and during, Caribbean Focus Year.

By 1986, ‘Into the Open’ type exhibitions were going from bad to worse. Three black artists, egged on by senior staff of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, tried to convince us that they, and a handful of other ‘chosen’ artists were artistically and culturally coming “From Two Worlds”. Things had obviously reached an all-time low, and black artists were now having to come up with all sorts of stupid theories as to why they should be given a modicum of representation in white chapels of art. so predictable and tedious have these exhibitions become, that even the most recent effort at the Cornerhouse in Manchester came and went with hardly a raised voice or a raised eyebrow; a tired and pathetic exhibition….”

The above extracts are from "Black Art Exhibitions in Britain: catalogue essay by Eddie Chambers in the catalogue Creation for Liberation Open Exhibition by Black Artists, 17 November - 7 October 1987, Brixton Village, pages 13-16