Tam Joseph - This is History

Tam Joseph is a uniquely talented, multidimensional artist. There are primarily two reasons why, within the context of Black artists in Britain, Joseph is such a fascinating individual. The first is his age. He was born in Dominica, in the Caribbean, in 1947. He came to London at the age of eight, eventually going on to fractious, unsatisfactory periods of study at London art colleges in the late 1960s. He has, since the end of that decade, maintained and developed his practice as a visual artist and sometime sculptor.

This makes him, on the one hand, too young to be linked to major figures of Caribbean and African art who made London their home in the decades immediately following the end of World War Two. For example, Ronald Moody had been born in 1900, Aubrey Williams had been born in 1926, Frank Bowling had been born in 1936 and Uzo Egonu had been born in 1931. In time, these artists came to be respected as elder statesmen, but Tam Joseph was too young to be included in their number. But Joseph's age, on the other hand, makes him too old to be properly linked to the fiery, boisterous young Black artists, typified by Keith Piper (born 1960) and Donald Rodney (born 1961) whose brand of 'Black Art' descended like a whirlwind on Britain in the early 1980s. Quite possibly, it is for this reason that Tam Joseph is very much his own man, his own painter.

The other reason for Joseph's uniqueness is that he stubbornly refuses to be typecast or pigeon-holed. He considers nothing to be above or beyond his cutting, witty and sometimes cynical observation. And once a subject has caught his eye, it cannot escape his canvas. Attempts have been made to link him to the 1980s Black Art movement, but Joseph calmly distances himself and his work from such a neatly identifiable arena. Joseph's position on himself and his practice is typified by his insistence that "I wasn't trying to develop a distinctly Black art. I was trying to develop myself as a person, through my art, and that's what I've been tying to do all the time". As an artist, Tam Joseph does not limit or restrict himself. He refuses to be perceived and used solely as a social commentator or political representative of his race. He draws his subject matter from wherever he chooses, and he executes his ideas in whatever medium seems appropriate to him.

Nevertheless we should be clear and understand that in his time, Tam Joseph has contributed a number of memorable paintings that locate themselves at the centre of socio-political commentary, often making work that shocks as it amuses, amuses as it shocks. Typical in this regard are paintings for which Joseph is universally loved and respected, such as 'Spirit of the Carnival' and 'UK School Report'. The latter piece, sub-divided into three portraits, shows the passage of a Black youngster through the British non-education system. In the first portrait, the neat and tidy lad is 'good at sports'. In the second portrait, the best that his teachers can say about him is that he 'likes music'. The third is inevitable: a few years of under-achievement at school have put him on the 'other' side of society and he 'needs surveillance'.

A more recent body of Joseph's work indicates another one of his unpredictable shifts in artistic direction. The work in question was collectively titled Great White, described by Hiroko Hagiwara as 'a series of picturesque and illusory landscapes, which induce us to quiet reflection' that signals a 'move towards a more contemplative body of work'. Hagiwara notes that 'it may seem odd...that an artist of Afro-Caribbean origin, should paint [sea]scapes of blue water and white shining icebergs'. In truth, Joseph has always struck out on his own course. But witty takes on Black 'problems' or Black 'issues' continue to be the most engaging aspect of Joseph's practice. White House Killings is a recent painting that recasts the traditional tourists' map of Washington DC. Peppered throughout the NW, NE, SE and SW quarters of the capital, literally surrounding the White House, are dozens of tiny figure motifs. It is only when we look closer, and reference the figure motifs that we realise each one represents the 'Location of killings in 1991'.

Joseph, whilst championing artistic independence, never forgets he is a African. His African-ness is the starting point for his work. From there, he can move in any direction he wants. As Joseph himself says "I use total experience. I use every bit of what I see; almost every bit of what I know, to bring out something, but it's not coming from just one experience".

This is History, because Tam Joseph is, in more senses than one, an historical artist. This is History because a number of Tam Joseph's paintings and sculpture were destroyed by the artist, thereby irreversibly consigning the to history. This is History, because a painter such as Tam Joseph chronicles, documents and records. And This is History for many other reasons...

The above text was used to introduce the catalogue accompanying Tam Joseph This is History. The exhibition was shown at Gallery II, University of Bradford, January 12 - February 20, 1998; Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, March 7 - April 19, 1998 and Tullie House, Carlisle, March 27 - May 9, 1999.