The Black Art in Focus exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery brings together paintings and prints from a number of important Black artists from the past 30 years showing us the range of artistic techniques, styles, ideas and themes which have been present in the work of Black British artists over this time.
Black Art in Focus features drawings by members of the BLK Art Group: Keith Piper, Donald Rodney and Claudette Johnson, as well as work by Chila Kumari Burman who became associated with the group and exhibited alongside them. The exhibition also features paintings by Tam Joseph and Kimathi Donkor, whose art explores social and political issues relating to being black and British in the 1980s.
I recently met Carol Thompson, Collections Manager at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, to talk about the exhibition.
Why is Wolverhampton Art Gallery interested in the Black Art movement?
The Black movement in this country is very much part of our heritage, an important part of the British art movement over the past 30 years, and we were very aware that Wolverhampton Art Gallery has played an important part in this history. For example, we had hosted one of the earliest exhibitions of work by young Black contemporary artists in 1981. The group at the time had been led by the Wolverhampton born artist Eddie Chambers, and was initially called the Wolverhampton Young Black Artists Group, though later it was renamed the BLK Art Group. In 1989 we hosted an important touring exhibition organised by the Hayward Gallery, which featured a whole range of Black and Asian artists called ‘The Other Story’. However, we were also aware that our own collection at the Gallery did not adequately reflect this history, so with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund Collecting Cultures programme, the Art Fund, the City of Wolverhampton Council and Friends of the Gallery we have been able to purchase important iconic works by Tam Joseph, Keith Piper, Donald Rodney and other leading figures in the Black Art movement.
These are important artists who produced great work, which has influenced generations of artists who followed after them. I think it’s also important to state that the social and political themes are often discussed but we also wanted to acknowledge that these artworks have a rightful places in our art history. We need to think about the techniques the artists used and the references to art history broadly. Each of the works we have acquired through the Collecting Cultures programme is a strong piece of work in its own right but also resonates with other aspects of our collection, such as our Pop Art works or our collection of art about social and political conflict.
How important is the working class Midlands heritage of the artists important to the story?
The late 1970’s and the early 1980’s were probably the only time people used the term ‘black’ to refer to the shared experience and common oppression of all both Black and Asian people. By the late 1980s it started to fall apart as things changed. It was also the time when the feminist and gay movements were very active, and in this liberating time people questioned a lot of things. Whereas the first generation of Black community came here and mostly focused on working and raising their children, the second generation were different and questioned things and talked about their rights. This was important to acknowledge because when they went to art college they questioned things, and fed off the energy of their environment.
There is undoubtedly a Midlands connection; Donald Rodney came from Smethwick, Marlene Smith and Eddie Chambers from Wolverhampton, and Keith Piper grew up in Birmingham, and the academic institutions in Coventry, Wolverhampton and Nottingham Trent were important connections for them all. Perhaps the art schools fostered the anger, perhaps they were told that there were no Black or Asian artists, perhaps they were isolated and were compelled to produce work which was raw, angry, and which had a sense of urgency and which made connections to the history of Black and Asian art movements.
The BLK Art Group made what they called ‘radical black art’, organised exhibitions of their work and gathered other students and artists to discuss its form, function and future. It was an important fertile environment which has been such an important influence for further generation of artists. This period was also characterised by the expansion of networks involving artists from around the country. In 1982, the BLK Art Group organised the First National Black Art Convention, held at The Polytechnic Wolverhampton. Contacts had already been made with veteran artist and activist Rasheed Araeen, London based artist Lubaina Himid and Shaka Dedi, director of the soon-to-be-opened Black Art Gallery, all of whom spoke at the Convention. In the audience came first meetings with young London based artist Sonia Boyce, Brenda Agard and members of the Black Audio Film Collective. Tam Joseph was a slightly older artist and was trained at Slade Art School.
Our exhibition has work from a much wider period of time than the early 1980’s and therefore we can see much wider influences. For example, we have work by Kimathi Donkor we have acquired. This is much later work which looks back to the 1980s and in particular the death of Cynthia Jarrett in Tottenham; this is such powerful work and painted in a very different genre to other work in the exhibition. The most important point about the BLK Art movement was that they increased the visibility of Black artists and integrated them more into mainstream contemporary art. These early protagonists of Black Art paved the way for future Turner Prize winners such as Chris Ofili and Steve McQueen.
How is the work engaging the local community?
It’s important that we engage with the local community. Alongside the exhibition we have employed Ian Sergeant to work with local young people and get them to think about and engage with the work, the history and the issues raised through the work. The young people are putting together their own exhibition responding to themes from this exhibition. Some are not far off the age group as when Eddie Chambers was when he was producing work, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to the present. The exhibition is called RICH (Race, Identity, Culture, and Heritage) and will be shown at the Gallery from 1st August 2016. We have also hosted a series of films and artist talk events – the third of these, on 22 June, is a screening of Black Audio Film Collective’s celebrated film Handsworth Songs, followed by an in-conversation between artists Kimathi Donkor, Tam Joseph and curator Dr Michael McMillan. An oral history project is also under way as part of the community engagement strand.
It’s been great to work with all the artists and visit them in their studios and we have enjoyed working with them, and we hope that this collaboration will continue into the future. We’re also hugely thankful to all the individuals and organisations who have generously helped with our research.
Black Art in Focus is showing at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery from 28th May to 23rd July 2016. For more information, visit www.wolverhamptonart.org.uk