Time was, or at least time might have been, when the writing or assembling of black British art histories was a relatively uncomplicated, matter. Historically (and we are now perhaps able to speak of such a thing), the curating or creating of black British art histories were for the most part centered on correcting or addressing the systemic absences of such artists. This making visible of marginalized, excluded, or not widely known histories was what characterized the first substantial attempt at chronicling a black British history: The 1989 - 1990 exhibition The Other Story: Asian, African, and Caribbean Artists in Post-War Britain. Given the historical tenuousness of black artists in British art history, this endeavor was a landmark exhibition, conceived and curated by Rasheed Araeen and organized by Hayward Gallery and South Bank Centre, London. Araeen also did pretty much all of the catalogue’s heavy lifting, providing its major chapters. A measure of the importance of The Other Story can be gauged if and when we consider that before the arrival of the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London (then touring to galleries in Wolverhampton and Manchester), there was no perceptible sense within either academia or the art world that black British artists had any sort of history. At the present time, Lucy Steeds, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, is undertaking fascinating and important work on revisiting the exhibition and, in part, seeing to it that this significant curatorial undertaking is introduced to generations born since the mid- to late-1970s.
Within a decade of The Other Story another curated overview of black British art history was undertaken by Mora Beauchamp-Byrd. Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966 – 1996 was an exhibition presented by the Caribbean Cultural Center, New York, which was shown across three venues in the city from fall 1997 to spring of the following year. Beauchamp-Byrd (who was at the time curator and director of special projects at New York’s Caribbean Cultural Center) curated the exhibition, and hers was, like Araeen’s before it, an ambitious and comprehensive undertaking. Transforming the Crown brought together a large number of artists, all of whom had connections to the United Kingdom, either by birth or by residence, permanent or temporary. Refreshingly perhaps, there was little in the way of overlap between the exhibitions’ two bodies of practitioners.
…Three decades after Araeen’s endeavor, however, complications abound when it comes to the writing or assembling of black British art history. The casual observer might perhaps be struck by the extent to which, within Britain, a number of the artists in the above-referenced exhibitions have been conspicuously brought into the fold of British art by way of honors awarded by Her Majesty the Queen or the bestowing of Royal Academician status by that august institution. Saleem Arif, Frank Bowling, Sonia Boyce, Sokari Douglas Camp, Lubaina Himid, and Yinka Shonibare have all made a trip, or several trips, to Buckingham Palace to collect awards such as (in ascending order of status and importance) Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE), or Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE). Though it appeared that among people from an ethnic minority background accepting such honors the majority were given the MBE, David Adjaye, the architect and sometime collaborator with painter Chris Ofili, was awarded one of the supreme (male) “gongs”: a knighthood, entitling him, as a knight of the realm, to be referred to as “Sir David.” Added to the above are the not insignificant number of names of other black British artists, photographers, filmmakers, and arts workers, upon whom honors have been similarly conferred. This ever-growing list includes John Akomfrah, David A. Bailey, Gus Casely-Hayford, Deirdre Figueiredo, Isaac Julien, Steve McQueen, Mark Sealy, and Barbara Walker.
The above extracts are from an Introduction, by Eddie Chambers, to a special issue of Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, Black British Art Histories November 2019, Number 45, November 2019: 4 - 6.