In the 1980’s there was a movement called Black Art in the UK. Black artists and activists banded together to radically change the institutional dynamics of the art world once and for all. What sparked this movement was serious reflection on a colonial past and racial violence towards black communities. The intensity of the movement came from black students who couldn’t relate to their teachers and what they learned from rigid systems in regard to art.
Black Art’s aim was to confront and change the system that, though centred in the West, encapsulated and dominated the whole world through imperialism. Black Art wanted to usher in a new era in fine art, a period in which a long-dominating force would step aside to give way for a new page of art history. However, it is now well-known that Black Art had its rise and decline in the span of the same decade due to several different factors. Black Art had its success in causing a scene in the cultural sector, and the foremost success of Black Art lies in its ideological commitment, in its agenda to confront, change, and humanise the prevailing art system so that it recognises the equality of all people.
The achievement of Black Art should therefore be seen in its attempts to intervene in and disrupt the established order and pedigree of the avant-garde, based exclusively on the work of white, generally male, artists. Black Art was to be the harbinger of deconstruction and reconstruction of mainstream history. Despite having a deep cerebral success, and the fact that several of the original artists have continued to practice in more recent decades, the fundamental failure of Black Art is ongoing, fixed in the gridlocked junction where black people participate in the art world today.
When Black Art emerged in its initial stage in the early 1980s it was ignorant of what it was up against in terms of art history; it did not even know the history of black struggle in art in Britain. When black artists and activists began their movement they had no conceptual structure of what art is. All the movement knew was that “white art” was not good; it therefore wanted to produce “black” art. This aggressive, one-track approach was brought on by the widespread absence of black art in commercial art galleries and museums.
This was where the Black Art movement began to lose its credibility. When the Black Art movement emerged as a whole body in the mid 1980’s and began to attract institutional attention, the institutions no longer exclusively represented a white establishment. The institutions were beginning to diversify their collections and were open to change. The system had already recognised the absence of black people from its institutions and had opened its door to the black community, to those who were happy to help existing hierarchies implement their own multicultural agenda and programme.
To make reparations for the neglect of black presence, the Greater London Council began to initiate programmes that promoted black artists and their works. What seemed to be the revelation needed to change the system turned to be the downfall of the movement, not because it came from within the system, but because it came forth utterly superficially.
Those involved in the Black Art movement were the demise of the movement. Ignorant and intellectually deficient black men and women were appointed merely on the basis of their belonging to ethnic minorities to implement the Greater London Council’s art policies and funding. People who weren’t qualified were hired to fill a quota. And the people hired gladly took these positons unaware of what they were meant to be involved in.
Imagine that an oppressed person, never involved in art and lacking knowledge of art and its history, unable to differentiate one picture from another on the basis of their visual qualities let alone their historical formations and significances, is put in charge of a portion of the curatorial department of a major institution. The individuals from the Black Art movement were given the power to make a change but didn’t know where to start. Instead of art historians and theorists, who would have helped develop a discourse in support of Black Art as an equally-relevant form of the historical avant-garde, there were sociologists of post-colonial theory who suddenly entered the scene.
The sociologists were too focused on the pre-Comonwealth past of racial strife and missed the bigger picture, continually highlighting separation when a need for collaboration truly arose. Some began to grumble about the movement’s involvement in the Greater London Council’s platform, saying that the foundation of Black Art was rushed, unorganised and never managed to be successful. This is proven by events that occurred further down the line of the movement’s decline.
Eddie Chambers, one of the early Black Art leaders has remarked that it was never asked “why the black community is not interested in what goes in the white galleries; is it just the galleries, or art, in which the black community is not interested. Even in the 1980’s, certain members of the black community were aware of their absence in the galleries and museums. And they were ok with that. I know this because they didn’t go to the galleries and museums to change that fact. The activists of Black Art missed a bigger picture. It isn’t only about having black art and black artists, it is about having the black audience, the black dealers and curators and those who have dedicated their lives to fine art, not only being black, but also capable to understand the dynamic of the career field they are in.”
David Osa Amadasun, a cultural free agent passionate about hammering together links between high art and social mobility, reignites the call for participative black communities, and stresses that their absence from exhibition spaces only works to articulate an destructive unspoken norm: it is natural/normal for Black people not to participate in mainstream art galleries and that “real” black people do not use these spaces. This version of an authentic black identity is created against the whiteness of the gallery, and in the process other black people, who are found in such places are “different”: read – not really black.
His classification summarises a closed mindset that has spread through black communities over many years, something that is constantly referenced in music and pop culture, something that is a barrier for the progress of black culture. Such was Black Arts biggest failure, its end result a potential disaster for the future of black artists. But the story doesn’t have to end sadly. If both the established and underdog parties can think in more encouraging, open-armed and explorer-like terms institutionally and personally, and recall that art is a story that has always concerned people from every corner of the earth, there may one day be no need for labels like Black Art. Art is art, it is needed more than ever and is there for everyone’s taking. The task at hand is to continue creating it, going to see it as never before, being made uncomfortable by it, discussing it and taking uncertain others to see it, and carrying that inspiration into everyday life.
Rasheed Araeen, The Success and The Failure Of Black Art, Third Text, 2004
David Osa Amadsun, Black people don’t go to galleries – The reproduction of taste and cultural value, Media Diversified, 2013