Black British and Other African Diaspora Artists Visualizing Slavery

The generation of Black British artists that emerged in the early 1980s frequently made work that reflected and referenced the pungent cocktail of social and political factors that characterized the existence of themselves and the community from which they emerged. While being mindful not to typecast all these artists as having the pursuit of social narratives as one of their core concerns, it is nevertheless safe to say that one of the elements of these new artists’ practice that made their work so fascinating and distinctive was its frequent embrace of the figurative image, which tended to bring with it multiple, highly-charged social narratives. For good measure, much of this work made liberal use of text, thereby amplifying the sense in which these artists were communicating messages, even as they pursued fledgling careers as young artists. The work of these artists often had a dynamism, an urgency, a sense of now is the time, and the time is now. To this end, they used all manner of techniques and devices to push home their messages. Mention has already been made of the striking use of text within much of the work produced by these artists. But other techniques were employed in the creating of a new type of art that ably reflected the sense of urgency and the sense of destiny that these artists evoked. Techniques such as assemblage sculpture, photomontage, and collage were widely used by these artists, who tended to look with a certain skepticism on the hegemonic ways in which traditional methods and mediums tended to hold sway in the teaching of art at college level—the environment from which most of these artists, such as Marlene Smith, Claudette Johnson, Keith Piper, and Donald Rodney emerged. Simultaneously, other artists of the African diaspora, in countries such as Jamaica, made cogent, wonderful work that sought to describe, or comment on, the potent memory of slavery and its aftermath.

…When a number of emerging Black British artists made work that referenced slavery, a distinct set of interlinked narratives could be perceived in these pieces. Slavery was treated not so much, or not only, as a traumatic but historical episode fixed in these artists’ heritage, but rather as an emphatic signifier of ongoing Pan-African, or African diasporic conditions. We are where we are because slavery existed. We are where we are because Britain was one of the world’s leading slave-trading nations. We are where we are because how could we describe the effects of persistent demonization, vilification, and criminalization as anything other than the lingering effects of the legacy of slavery? The memory and the visualizing of slavery became, in effect, a pertinent and arresting vehicle for understanding, making sense of, and above all, visualizing, ongoing torments and disappointments.

These Black British artists tended to look outside of their geographic location, and their present-day existence, for images and philosophies that might bring meaning to their own lives, and mechanisms through which their condition could be communicated, and strategies for resistance and advancement formulated. One of the first ports of call for these artists, reflecting both empathy and a search for a political blueprint, was the history of Black struggle in the United States. Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, George Jackson, Angela Davis: the lives, writings, and struggles of these iconic figures consistently inspired these young Black British artists. Elsewhere in the New World, the heady, potent and distinctly counter-cultural emergence of Rastafari and its attendant Dread subculture also distinctly influenced this new generation of practitioners. This was a time when reggae music was arguably at its most formidable, dominant, and influential in its ability to fashion an ideology of resistance and empowerment. Talk of Babylon, exile, exodus, righteous suffering, and redemption was a source of profound inspiration for these Black British artists. It didn’t hurt that many grew up in fundamentalist Christian households in which the decidedly biblical associations of Rasta-talk were recognized and well understood. Spinning the globe still further, this new generation of artists found common cause with the antiapartheid struggle and the defense of the so-called “Frontline States” that so often came under attack by the army of racist South Africa.

...Perhaps the most subtle, understated, and fascinating aspect of Under the Sea, Under the Sea [Tam Joseph] and Oceans [Charles Campbell] is the way in which the artists built survival and the resilience of New World African creativity into their paintings. Joseph adhered paper to the canvas, and then applied acrylic to the paper. The paper was in fact pages of books by such towering figures of twentieth-century literature as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon. It is this sense of slavery’s descendants living to tell the tale through beautiful, articulate, and poignant narratives of literature that gives the painting its subtle, understated strength and power. In its own way, the painting echoes Bob Marley’s sentiment, expressed in Survival (1979) that we are the Black survivors.

The full version of the above text Black-British and Other African Diaspora Artists Visualizing Slavery, appears in the edited volume African Diaspora in the Cultures of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States (University of Delaware Press, 2015, edited by Persephone Braham).