‘We will be who we want where we want with whom we want in the way that we want when we want and the time is now and the place is here…’
Text on artwork ‘We will be’ by Lubaina Himid
Nottingham Contemporary presents an exhibition of around 100 works by over 30 Black British artists and groups. The works include painting, sculpture, installation, photography, video and displays of archives from the 1980s, exploring this key decade for British culture and politics.
The artists in the exhibition address themes of identity, representation, racism and the consequences of the British Empire in often personal as well as political terms. The 1980s saw civil unrest in Britain brought about by racial and economic inequality. The art world was perceived as white, male and not representing the culture and experience of many of the world’s citizens. Today, debates around these issues still feel relevant. Many of the artists in the exhibition use collage and montage, assembling and layering images to tell their story from their point of view.
Each of the galleries at Nottingham Contemporary is loosely themed and has a title taken from one of the artworks. These notes give an insight into a small selection of the works.
Curriculum links: history, citizenship, PHSE, literacy, and politics, sociology, film and media studies, painting, sculpture, photography, art history.
Gallery 1 – Signs of Empire
In Gallery 1 are painting, sculpture, prints and video by artists Rasheed Araeen, Black Audio Film Collective, Sonia Boyce, Eddie Chambers, Lubaina Himid, Gavin Jantjes, Keith Piper, Ingrid Pollard and Veronica Ryan. They explore aspects of how the British and other Empires affected and still affect the lives of people, both in Britain and abroad.
Destruction of the National Front by Eddie Chambers (1979–80) is the first known work by the artist, and was made while he was still a student in Coventry. The 1970s saw the rise of the National Front, the extreme-right political party that wanted to ban non-white immigration and to send immigrants back to their country of origin. Chambers produced this series of four screen prints by tearing up the Union Jack and rearranging it as a swastika, drawing a clear comparison between the National Front and the Nazis.
Chambers co-founded the initially Midlands-based Blk Art Group – with Keith Piper, Donald Rodney and Marlene Smith – in 1979. In 1982, he wrote that: ‘Black art should indicate and/or document change. It should seek to effect such change by aiming to create an alternative set of values necessary to better living.’
Sutapa Biswas’s The pied piper of Hamlyn – Put your money where your mouth is, 1987, is a two-panel work. The rat-catcher of the medieval story becomes a sinister white businessman. He is being pulled along in a rickshaw, followed by a procession of South Asian children. In the background, on collaged photocopies, are grand buildings, apparently ready for their treasures to be stolen and transported to Europe.
Gallery 2 – We Will Be
The painting, photos, installation and film/video in Gallery 2 focus on how racism, sexism and homophobia impacts on peoples’ personal lives, with some people having to encounter more than one type of prejudice. There are works by Donald Rodney, Marlene Smith, Joy Gregory, Mona Hatoum, Maud Sulter, Sonia Boyce, Zarina Bhimji and Rotimi Fani-Kayode.
Donald Rodney’s The House that Jack Built 1989-90, takes the title of the famous children’s nursery rhyme, dating from the 19th century, in which various animals and characters are connected to ‘The House that Jack Built’. In Rodney’s version, described by the artist as a self-portrait, this house is Rodney’s home. Rodney’s ancestry, his body and his home are, like Jack’s house, the result of an interconnected history. Rodney suffered from the debilitating sickle cell disease and in the 1980s began to incorporate X-rays of his own body into his work. ‘With x-rays, you’re looking beneath the surface to see what the structure of things really are’, Donald Rodney.
Ingrid Pollard’s Pastoral Interlude, shows a fenced off rural landscape, indicating ownership and rights, with the presence of a black woman. The text under the photograph reads …it’s as if the black experience is only ever lived within an urban environment. I thought I liked the Lake District; where I wandered lonely as a black face in a sea of white. A visit to the countryside is always accompanied by a feeling of unease; dread…’
Autoportraits by Joy Gregory are black and white self-portraits, Gregory’s response to the invisibility of black women in British fashion and beauty images that surrounded her as a teenager. From the age of thirteen Gregory was an avid consumer of women’s magazines. The features, quizzes, tips on fashion and beauty, along with the advice pages, offered a map of how she thought life was to be lived. Gregory’s constant disappointment was that there was hardly a black woman to be seen. It was the 1970s and occasionally there would be discussions about this, with magazine owners and editors insisting that black faces would alienate readers and advertisers. As a teenager, she dreamt of glossy, full colour pictures of someone like herself appearing on the pages of her favourite magazines.
Gallery 3 – The Peoples’ Account
This gallery considers how artists witness and remember, record and re-tell. One of several archive displays in the exhibition curated by artists is by Vanley Burke, who was born in Jamaica and has lived in Birmingham since 1965. As a photographer, he has played an important role in documenting black culture in Britain – from social clubs and weddings to dub sound systems and rallies. Over the past 50 years, Burke has assembled a vast personal collection of posters, records, objects and images that tell many stories about Britain’s African and Caribbean communities. As Burke, has noted: ‘The whole idea of black history is fraught with problems: history generally is thought to be written by the victors, and if victors write your history then you tend not to believe it if you’re a victim. So, I decided that if we were to believe our history, we had to write it ourselves – and I could do that with photography.’
Gallery 4 – Convenience Not Love
In this final gallery, allegory and satire are used in various ways to expose greed and discrimination. The artists include Chila Kumari Burnam, Lubaina Himid and Keith Piper. Both Himid and Piper use historical artworks and stories to make connections with the past and reveal how little has changed.
The Black Assassin Saints by Keith Piper refers to the increasingly tense situation in South Africa during the 1980s. Several British companies (some of which are named in the work) did business there and they came under increasing pressure from the British public to stop. The money they earned helped support the South African government. whose segregation laws and actions at that time were racist and violent. The faces in the painting are bronze sculptures from Benin, West Africa, now in the British Museum collection.