Black-British Artists and Problems of Systemic Invisibility and Eradication: Creating Exhibition Histories of That Which Is Not There

I would like to begin by contextualizing my own involvement in the narratives I will discuss. I entered art school in the late 1970s, and shortly thereafter began to work with a loose association of young artists and art students, on a series of exhibitions and other activities that took place between 1981 and 1984. I came of age, and entered art school, at a time when tens of thousands of other young Black-British people were similarly emerging into adulthood, looking to make sense of their identities. We were the children of Caribbean migrants, who had been born and brought up as part of the British Empire. Coming to Britain, ‘the Mother Country,’ these migrants—my parents, our parents—took up oftentimes uneasy residence in their adopted homeland. They gave birth to a generation of children who would be the first to grow up embodying an uneasy, curious, yet dynamic state of Black-Britishness. As much as anything else, my own personal history, and the history of tens of thousands of others, speaks of the formation and evolution of Black Britain. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that so much of my own art, and the art of the others with whom I have worked, touched on pronounced notions of history and identity.

Being acutely aware of one’s own ‘history’ leads, in some respects, to a wider consciousness of the ways in which a certain history is absent from dominant historical narratives. The widespread absence of Black artists from British art history is symptomatic of a wider invisible-izing of Black people from British history, society, presumed identity and so on. Somewhat dispiritingly, it is largely through sports and entertainment that Black-British people achieve greatest visibility. The arenas of sport and music are where Black people most frequently acquire any sort of honorary Britishness. Consequently, there are formidable challenges facing those of us seeking to establish wider histories of postwar exhibition activity in Britain—histories that properly address and acknowledge the contributions made by not only my own generation of practitioners, but also preceding and subsequent ones. One of the first things that might strike the would-be researcher is the extent to which the contributions made by Black artists are routinely, historically, systemically disregarded or omitted from dominant narratives. Such omissions are wholly out of sync with the realities of Black-British artists’ contributions.

From the late twentieth century onward, exhibition histories of Black-British artists reveal the extent to which they enjoyed periods of relative acclaim, exposure, and acceptance. At times, such as the early 1960s and the mid-1980s, it seemed as if such practitioners were well established, featuring, as they sometimes did, in important group exhibitions, solo shows, and so on. But Black-British artists—both immigrant and British-born—have found that within a few years of any given period of exposure, precious little ‘evidence’ relating to said exposure exists or remains. So exhibitions that took place in London in the early 1960s are as emphatically erased as the exhibitions that took place in the mid-1980s. How does one set about creating or establishing exhibition histories of that which is not there, or no longer there? With both artists and work being vulnerable to systemic omission from histories of exhibition activity, art historians such as myself are perhaps dealing with ‘absence’ as much as, or even more so, than that which has an irrefutable ‘presence.’  

The above extracts from a text by Eddie Chambers “Black British Artists and Problems of Systemic Invisibility and Eradication: Creating Exhibition Histories of That Which is Not There", in The Curatorial Conundrum, Paul O'Neil, Mick Wilson and Lucy Steeds (editors), MIT Press, 2016.