Bowling on Through the Century - Some Considerations

In 1996, then Bristol-based, artist, curator, writer and critic Eddie Chambers curated the exhibition Frank Bowling: Bowling on Through the Century, which toured to a number of towns and cities in the UK. Twenty-five years on Chambers looks back on this landmark show.

Frank Bowling: Bowling on Through the Century was an early manifestation of my curatorial shift from larger group exhibitions to solo exhibitions by Black artists, a noticeable shift that had taken place over several years. In 1988, I had curated Black Art: Plotting the Course, a major touring exhibition funded by the Arts Council, that had opened at Oldham Art Gallery (22 October - 3 December 1988), before going on tour. Black Art: Plotting the Course was perhaps typical of my early forays into curating, including the work of 27 artists from African, Asian and Caribbean backgrounds, all living in the UK. It was though a positively restrained tally of artists compared to my next exhibition, Let the Canvas Come to Life With Dark Faces, an Arts Council-funded touring show of self-portraits by UK based artists, again, from African, Asian and Caribbean backgrounds. The exhibition must have included the work of between 50 and 60 artists, each showing one piece of work, or one series. My curatorial strategy was to bring together, in group exhibitions with particular and specific themes, the work of as many artists as could be accommodated. The strategy though, was not without its drawbacks. There were, in the first instance, more artists in these exhibitions than could easily be named or recollected, without the aid of the catalogue. Related, it was also a matter of fact that the greater the number of practitioners in a group exhibition, the slenderer their respective contributions. The artists attracted to exhibiting opportunities such as these tended to appreciate the exposure, but it seemed increasingly clear to me that larger group exhibitions, apart from having particularly cumbersome aspects, often gave the perhaps not unreasonable impression that artists were being brought together on the basis of their respective ethnicities or perceived ethnicities, as much as for the specific nature or content of their work. Equally as problematic perhaps, these exhibitions brought with them an inference of comprehensiveness or totality. That is, the artists represented practices and indeed people, beyond the individuality of their respective contributions. This is what Black artists’ work looks like.

In 1991 I began to gradually move away from such curating and gravitated instead to exhibitions with significantly fewer participants. The first such endeavour was History and Identity: Seven Painters, which took place at the Norwich Gallery, Norfolk Institute of Art and Design. Such an exhibition was significantly less hidebound and shackled to inferences of comprehensiveness or totality. Furthermore, importantly, fewer artists meant greater individual representation, and allowed for gallery audiences to consider artistic interplay in ways that were perhaps less prescriptive. It was in such a vein of curatorial thinking that I brought together the non-figurative paintings of Sylbert Bolton, Anthony Daley and David Somerville for The Dub Factor, an exhibition that opened at Christchurch Mansions, Ipswich (3 October - 8 November 1992). Crucially, this was the first time I worked with Frank Bowling. Given the fascinating tensions that were sometimes apparent when Black artists and abstraction were brought together, I reasoned that he would be an ideal person to bring mature reflections, born of decades of practice and a pronounced period of writing art criticism, to the project. I invited him to contribute a ‘Postscript’ to the catalogue. The text was given a fresh airing in the Mappa Mundi exhibition catalogue, an extract of which follows: ‘It is clear that Tony Daley, Sylbert Bolton and David Sommerville (and perhaps many others yet to come forward) are wrestling with the continuingly elusive notion of a specific location between motif, theme and archetype within the activity of painting itself.’

Perhaps the most important consideration in my gradual move towards my curatorial embrace and prioritizing of solo exhibitions was my reasoning that such exhibitions afforded the least restrictive, or most open-ended, approach to reading and viewing the work of a Black artist. In a solo exhibition, all manner of ultimately, or possibly, extraneous considerations had to be set to one side, in favour of the primary consideration being given to the individuality of an artist’s practice. It mattered little whether the work was figurative, non-figurative, two-dimensional or three-dimensional, wall-based, floor-based or installation. Equally as important, it mattered little, in many respects, what the ethnicity, gender, or other markers of individual identity the artist might possess. What was most important was that gallery audiences had an opportunity to see and appreciate an artist’s practice, set very much within its own range of contexts. Such was my approach to Bowling on Through the Century. I had had the greatest of respect for Bowling and his practice since I first encountered his name and work as a student in the early 1980s. Though I was drawn to, in my own work, an embrace of explicit social narratives, I respected Bowling for the ways in which he eventually gravitated to an insistent embrace of non-figuration and remained committed to his own modernist aesthetics of abstraction. I believed that a major touring exhibition, complete with substantial catalogue, was what Bowling’s work deserved and demanded. Approaching the midpoint of the 1990s, I set to work.

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers, “Bowling on Through the Century - Some Considerations”, a text in the catalogue Frank Bowling: Land of Many Waters, Arnolfini, Bristol, 3 July - 26 September 2021. Edited by Gemma Brace and published by Arnolfini, 2021. Chambers' essay pages 47 - 53.

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