Black Artists in Europe

In seeking to contribute to the researching and establishing of more substantial histories of Black artists in Europe, the would-be researcher is faced with a number of difficulties and issues. These difficulties and issues begin with the question of terminology. Strictly speaking, ‘Black artists’, as a self-declared, and self-identified body of practitioners did not emerge in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in Europe, until the early 1980s, at the earliest. Indeed, within parts of continental Europe, it could be said that even at the present moment, Black artists, (again, as a self-declared, and self-identified body of practitioners) have yet to enter into any sort of sustained and vigorous visibility. The texts assembled for this issue of Critical Interventions reflect the extent to which the United Kingdom is the European country in which the presence of Black artists is perhaps most vigorous, notwithstanding challenges of visibility to be referenced presently. This claim does not seek to diminish the presence of say, French-based artists such as Mohamed Bourouissa (born in Algeria and living in Paris), or German-based artists such as Ingrid Mwangi (born in Kenya and living in Germany), but is instead intended to animate some of the ways in which the presence of Black-British artists reflects a history that is quite distinct from their counterparts elsewhere in Europe.

…. In appraising the presence of Black artists in Europe, other problems must be born in mind. The decidedly uneven presence of Black artists across Europe is, in part at least, the result of (and compounded by) ultimately bizarre discriminatory pathologies. The key characteristic of such pathologies is a simultaneous disregarding of the Black artists born or living in a particular European country (in considering this, any country will do) even as that country looks to embrace Black artists resident in another, and different, locale. France might have comparatively little regard for its artists with backgrounds in its former colonies, but its leading institutions of the arts are simultaneously not shy in embracing and celebrating Black artists from other parts of the globe, be that the United Kingdom, the United States, or elsewhere. The same might be said of no end of other European countries, who have found time and space for Black British artists, even as they effectively deny the existence of artists of equal calibre living within these countries’ own borders, and speaking these countries’ languages. And whilst a number of Black British artists are the notable beneficiaries of this rather skewed largesse, (a subject taken up by Ingrid von Rosenberg for this journal, in which she discusses the fortunes of Black-British artists in Germany), Britain itself betrays this same pathology by demonstrating a pronounced preference (at the current time) for African-American artists, or Black artists from other parts of the world, even as the wider body Black artists born or living within the British Isles languish in alarming states of neglect and invisibility.

… As mentioned earlier, the United Kingdom is the European country in which the presence of Black artists is perhaps most vigorous. During the decades of the mid 20th century the presence was decidedly integrated, certainly in comparison to what was to happen in later decades. Whilst the presence of Black artists, from the late 1970s through to the 1990s, was particularly notable, it nevertheless existed within the self-referencing parameters of the Black group exhibition. Within one of the texts assembled in this volume, Paris-based writer Sophie Orlando cites ‘Shocks to the System’ as being a particularly important attempt to present the work of certain Black artists within a broader social, political, aesthetic and curatorial context. Taking place in 1991, the exhibition, unwittingly perhaps, came to act as something of a blueprint for the ways in which a favoured cluster of Black-British artists would be exhibited, effectively ending, for better or for worse, the proliferation of the Black group exhibition.

The full version of the above text, "Black Artists in Europe", appeared as an introduction to Critical Interventions, Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture, Number 12, Fall 2013.  Special Issue on Black artists in Europe, guest-edited by Eddie Chambers, pages 2 – 5.