Theory Lecture 4: Black Arts UK

The Uk Black Arts movement grew out of the Post-Colonial state which was concerned with the impact and implications of colonialism on the current state (A Post ‘-ism’ being the transformed presence of the ‘-ism’). The mid 20th century saw global independence movements from British rule to self-governance including the Indian and Kenyan Independence movements along with civil rights movements of racial, sexual and gender equalities. The UK Black Arts movement grew amongst the second generation immigrants to the UK who had come in great numbers due to the amount of workers that were needed after the war.

Wassily Kandinsky - On The Theme of the Last Judgement - 1913
Wassily Kandinsky – On The Theme of the Last Judgement – 1913
Avinash Chandra - Hills of Gold - 1964
Avinash Chandra – Hills of Gold – 1964

Modernism was thought to be ‘the universal art form’, to be accessible to all, yet many of the migrant artists who believed it would be possible to come to Britain and be engaged in modern art practice weren’t accepted as they would have hoped. Outsider modernists were deemed to be second rate appropriators of the western originated modernist art.

F.N. Souza - Crucifixion - 1959
F.N. Souza – Crucifixion – 1959

This inequality was demonstrated highly in the 1989 exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, which sought to break the trend that 100% of exhibitions ignored 80% of the world by exhibiting 50 known western artists alongside 50 outsiders yet was heavily criticised by Jean Fisher for the lack of any non European or US modernist works being shown. The exhibition was set up to highlight the contrast between tradition and the modern with modernist outsiders being considered as being not authentic.

Aubrey Williams - Tribal Mark - 1961
Aubrey Williams – Tribal Mark – 1961
Frank Bowling - Julia - 1975
Frank Bowling – Julia – 1975

Another exhibition in 1989 entitled ‘The Other Story’ led by Rasheed Araeen sought to legitimise these Black and Asian arts. Araeen wished to show that the cross-fertilisation of ideas for black artists was as normal and common and as non-derivative as Picasso’s works such as ‘Les d’Avignon’ was for its inspiration found in ancient Iberian masks.

Pablo Picasso – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – 1907
An Iberian 'Fang' Mask
An Iberian ‘Fang’ Mask

The second wave Black Arts movement took the ‘Black’ differentiation and used it to empower and unify against the growing British hostilities to immigrants such as those expressed by Margret Thatcher in her ‘Swamp Speech’:

Chaar Yaar
Rasheed Araeen – Chaar Yaar (Four Friends) – 1968

Rasheed Araeen crosses over between the first and second wave black arts movements, his later work along with the movement being more politically charged than his earlier work, such as ‘Burning Ties 76-79’ a video piece in which he burned the ties he wore to work as an engineer as they hang in front of him. Whilst they burn he is revealed, becoming himself but also illustrating the way in which he gave up the respect and privilege of position he had in Pakistan to become an artist in Britain. Araeen later went on to found the magazine ‘Black Phoenix’ that turned into ‘Third text’ concerning itself with global issues not just local ones.

Kieth Piper -Go West Young Man - 1987
Keith Piper – Go West Young Man – 1987

Pieces such as Keith Piper’s ‘Go West Young Man’ promoted a DIY attitude towards the under-trodden black youths, whilst also providing a startling reminder of their heritage. ‘Go West Young Man’ depicts a drawing of the layout for a slave ship, explicitly detailing the cramped conditions that caused the deaths of many thousands along the way.

These newer works of the second wave started to bring about a generational tension in the black arts community, as well as in the wider society as a whole. Pieces such as ‘Missionary Position II’ from Sonia Boyce highlighted the differences between the highly Christian first generation and the Rastafarian youth. The title provocatively calling out the conservative nature of the previous generation, missionary being thought as the only ‘Christian Approved’ position of intercourse.

Sonia Boyce - Missionary Position II - 1985
Sonia Boyce – Missionary Position II – 1985

Works like these brought out a struggle between ‘Identity Politics’ and ‘Politics of Identity’, the mix of cultures challenging the preconceived notion of identity: previously taken to be a given, something you have that represents you based on outward characteristics. This movement in black arts opened society to the idea of self-forged identity, someone of caucasian origin may identify more with black culture and vice-versa. These themes are illustrated in Boyce’s ‘From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born ‘Native’ Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction’:

Sonia Boyce - From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born ‘Native’ Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction - 1987
Sonia Boyce – From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born ‘Native’ Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction – 1987

Morgan Quaintance has recently begun to challenge these identity based ideas, fearing the Black Arts movement is too focussed on its identity, that in order to move forward, the movement needs to be more flexible and open in future, bringing in the third wave, along with artists such as Steve Mcqueen, Chris Ofili and Moma Hatoum.

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