Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain / Edition 1

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In the 1980s—at the height of Thatcherism and in the wake of civil unrest and rioting in a number of British cities—the Black Arts Movement burst onto the British art scene with breathtaking intensity, changing the nature and perception of British culture irreversibly. This richly illustrated volume presents a history of that movement. It brings together in a lively dialogue leading artists, curators, art historians, and critics, many of whom were actively involved in the Black Arts Movement. Combining cultural theory with anecdote and experience, the contributors debate how the work of the black British artists of the 1980s should be viewed historically. They consider the political, cultural, and artistic developments that sparked the movement even as they explore the extent to which such a diverse body of work can be said to constitute a distinct artistic movement—particularly given that “black” in Britain in the 1980s encompassed those of South Asian, North and sub-Saharan African, and Caribbean descent, referring as much to shared experiences of disenfranchisement as to shades of skin.

In thirteen original essays, the contributors examine the movement in relation to artistic practice, public funding, and the transnational art market and consider its legacy for today’s artists and activists. The volume includes a unique catalog of images, an extensive list of suggested readings, and a descriptive timeline situating the movement vis-à-vis relevant artworks and films, exhibitions, cultural criticism, and political events from 1960 to 2000. A dynamic living archive of conversations, texts, and images, Shades of Black will be an essential resource.

Contributors. Stanley Abe, Jawad Al-Nawab, Rasheed Araeen, David A. Bailey, Adelaide Bannerman, Ian Baucom, Dawoud Bey, Sonia Boyce, Allan deSouza, Jean Fisher, Stuart Hall, Lubaina Himid, Naseem Khan, susan pui san lok, Kobena Mercer, Yong Soon Min, Keith Piper, Zineb Sedira, Gilane Tawadros, Leon Wainwright, Judith Wilson

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Shades of Black is a remarkable document of creative thinking and archival importance. The editors have brought to life a decade rich in artistic experimentation and collaboration, which will shape the vision of artists and thinkers across generations and geographies.”—Homi K. Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature, Harvard University

Shades of Black is an invaluable text for anyone and everyone in diaspora studies, cultural studies, and comparative British and American studies and for historians and critics of visual art. It brings together a wide range of visual art with a superb collection of essays that set the historical and critical context for understanding one of the most vibrant moments in art history.”—Hazel V. Carby, author of Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America

“The explosion of creativity and the critical debates on black culture that emerged in Britain in the 1980s transformed reigning assumptions about black art around the world. This collection is an important effort to assess the work of that period and its lasting impact.”—Coco Fusco, interdisciplinary artist and Associate Professor of Visual Arts, Columbia University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822334200
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 7.94 (w) x 9.98 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

David A. Bailey is a photographer and Senior Curator at Autograph ABP in London. He is coeditor of Veil: Veiling, Representation, and Contemporary Art and Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance.

Ian Baucom is Associate Professor of English at Duke University. He is the author of Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity and Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (forthcoming from Duke University Press).

Sonia Boyce is an internationally renowned visual artist. She is Associate Lecturer in Fine Art at Central Saint Martin’s School of Art and Design at the University of the Arts, London. She was a co-director of the African and Asian Visual Artists Archive at the University of East London (1996–2002).

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Read an Excerpt

Shades of Black

Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain

By David A. Bailey, Ian Baucom, Sonia Boyce

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8644-5



Stuart Hall

Assembling the 1980s: The Deluge—and After

This paper tries to frame a provisional answer to the question How might we begin to "assemble" the 1980s as an object of critical knowledge? It does not aspire to a definitive interpretation of the period. Other contributors address this question with far greater authority. Not being a practicing artist, art critic, historian, or curator, mine is a strictly amateur view. What I try to do, instead, is to "map" the black arts in Britain in the 1980s as part of a wider cultural/political moment, tracking some of the impulses that went into its making and suggesting some interconnections between them. I "assemble" these elements, not as a unity, but in all their contradictory dispersion. In adopting this genealogical approach, the artwork itself appears, not in its fullness as an aesthetic object, but as a constitutive element in the fabric of the wider world of ideas, movements, and events, while at the same time offering us a privileged vantage point on that world.

In Different: Contemporary Photographers and Black Identity, Mark Sealy and I make the argument that contemporary black photography continues, in many ways, to operate on a problematic first defined by the practitioners who emerged in the 1980s. We may think of this as the first, genuinely "postcolonial" moment in black artistic practice. It witnessed an explosion of creative work by artists from places historically marginalized from the centers of power and authority. It opened up certain possibilities in art practice and defined an "economy" of themes and images with which contemporary practitioners are still reckoning. Though not a unified, coherent, or organized phenomenon, this "movement" (if something so loose can be called such) must be tracked, not only in the visual arts, film, and photography, but across music, literature, and the performing arts, popular culture and fashion. Broadly speaking, it is driven by the struggles of peoples, marginalized in relation to the world system, to resist exclusion, reverse the historical gaze, come into visibility, and open up a "third space" (between the weight of an unreconstructed tradition and the impetus of a mindless modernism) in cultural representation. It therefore belongs to that uneven, contradictory, and bitterly contested transformation of cultural life now in progress across the globe, which attempts to de-center Western models and open a broader, more transcultural and "translative" perspective on cultural practice and production. It challenges the institutional spaces, established circuits, and validated canons of critical achievement of the metropolitan mainstream.

This "movement" has global significance. It refuses to be constrained by national boundaries, emphasizing instead a lateral, diasporic, transnational perspective. The project persists, despite being confronted on all sides by deepening inequalities of power and material resources and marked by a persistent racism. Unable as yet to stem frontally the tide of Western-driven, neoliberal globalization and its cultural agendas, this is globalization's Other, transnational face—its subversive reverse side. As we argued, "Refusing, simultaneously, either to disappear into the global bazaar of the international art market or to be holed up forever in some 'local' ethnic ghetto, this movement is 'located' in, without being rendered motionless by, places of origin, skin colour, so-called racial group, ethnic tradition or national belongingness and is part of a new, emergent kind of 'vernacular cosmopolitanism.'"

The 1980s, then, saw the onset of a "deluge" of creative activity. However, the "Shades of Black" conference also constituted the 1980s as a puzzle, an enigma. In the history of the postwar black visual arts in Britain, the 1980s remain a vigorously contested space. This may be because they have become an object of desire, weighed down by the projection of powerful but unrequited psychic and political investments. Thus, some see the 1980s as the moment when the dream that artists from the former colonial empires could enter the mainstream of modern art and claim their rightful place there was abandoned. Some see the 1980s as the moment when art as an essential weapon in the armory of antiracist politics surfaced—and was derailed. Some see the decade as the moment when the arts were harnessed to the expression of excluded cultural, national, ethnic, and racial identities—and became mired in the multicultural trap of "cultural difference." Some see the 1980s as the moment when what was progressive in modernism was subverted by the vagaries of postmodernism and betrayed by cultural theory's so-called collusive relationship with global capitalism. The protagonists of these various positions are unlikely to agree—or even to agree to differ! Indeed, the old antagonisms are still pursued, sometimes with a venomous intensity. We are still in the post-1980s, living its turbulent afterlife, with all the heated controversy of an unsettled history in which everything is still urgently at stake.

We need to bear in mind the transatlantic nature of the dialogue that "Shades of Black" initiated. Here, comparisons are useful, but closeness can also be a source of misunderstanding. The Black Arts Movement in the United States, which emerged during the post-civil rights period, was enormously influential for black British artists like Eddie Chambers and Keith Piper and the formation of the Pan-Afrikan Connection in 1982. However, the term "black" in the British context (and, incidentally, in this essay) always also references migrants from the Asian subcontinent as well as the African diaspora, a fact that makes the politics of antiracism significantly different on the two sides of the Atlantic. There are deeper historical differences. For African Americans, the key factor has always been slavery, whose consequences continue to shape daily domestic American life. In the Caribbean case, in the 1950s and 1960s, the central issue seemed to be, not slavery per se, but colonialism. Certainly, the postwar generation of Caribbean and Asian artists who migrated to Britain were primarily motivated by anticolonialism and the struggle for national independence. Further, because Britain —unlike the United States—managed slavery and colonization at a safe distance, the migrations of the 1950s were the first time a black working population in any significant numbers had come to live, work, and settle in the white domestic space. These and other facts should make us wary of easy U.S./U.K. comparisons. The powerful impact of black American popular culture on black British culture in the 1990s and after has tended to obscure these historical distinctions.

I attempt to treat the 1980s as a conjuncture, as Gramsci understood it: a fusion of contradictory forces that nevertheless cohere enough to constitute a definite configuration. Althusser called it "a condensation of dissimilar currents," the "ruptural fusion of an accumulation of contradictions." The forces operative in a conjuncture have no single origin, time scale, or determination. Like a symptom, conjunctures are always overdetermined. They have different time scales—"How long," Gramsci asked, "is a crisis?"—and are defined by their articulation, not their chronology. Decades seem a convenient way of getting a handle on conjunctures but can be misleading because they tend to fetishize them, condensing them into easily assimilable blocks of time, giving them a sequential form and an imaginary unity they never possessed. Much the same can be true of "generations," which, as David Scott argues, should be defined, not by simple chronology but by the fact that their members frame the same sorts of questions and try to work through them within the same epistemological, political, or aesthetic horizon, or as he calls it, "problem-space." For example, did the highly politicized artwork of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the more figural and neoconceptual work of the late 1980s and 1990s belong to the same problematic because they were produced by the same generation? Did both belong to the same conjuncture? Perhaps, indeed, the differences between them constitute something more like a profound rupture. If so, we need to know why this break occurs within what on the surface appears to be the same conjuncture.

My argument is indeed that the problematic that frames this work did fracture decisively in the 1980s, leading to a profound "conjunctural shift." Framing the discussion as "the 1980s" may therefore serve to conceal how deep and extensive these seismic shifts turned out to be. I therefore tend to see the decade as a period of breaks, as well as of continuities, setting in play a number of impulses whose directions do not necessarily, in the end, add up. Instead, I try to map them as a series of overlapping, interlocking, but noncorresponding histories, and the shifts and fissures they opened up.

Bearing in mind the caveats above, we can still usefully divide the British postwar black art scene into two distinct waves. The first generation were born as colonial subjects in their countries of origin before World War II and, with one or two exceptions, came to Britain as practicing artists, with a body of work already behind them. They arrived on the crest of the wave of postwar decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. Between 1949 and 1966, Francis Newton Souza, Frank Bowling, Aubrey Williams, Donald Locke, Ahmed Parvez, Anwar Shemza, Avinash Chandra, David Medalla, Balraj Khanna, Iqbal Geoffrey, Uzo Egonu, Saleem Arif, Ivan Peries, Li Yuan-chia, and Rasheed Araeen, among others, arrived in Britain. Incidentally, the only member of that generation who was a contributor to this symposium was Rasheed Araeen—painter, sculptor, curator, editor of Third Text—the last of that group to arrive and manifestly a transitional figure who spans both generations. The leading figures of the second wave, who surfaced in the late 1970s and early 1980s—including Eddie Chambers, Keith Piper, Lubaina Himid, Sonia Boyce, Claudette Johnson, Mona Hatoum, Maud Sulter, Donald Rodney, Gavin Jantjes, as well as many later contributors—were all born in the 1950s or 1960s and did not exhibit work until two decades later.

One immediate contrast is between the attitudes to modernism of these two waves. Broadly speaking, the artists of the first wave came to London in a spirit not altogether different from that in which early European modernists went to Paris: to fulfill their artistic ambitions and to participate in what they saw as the heady atmosphere of artistic innovation in the most advanced center of art at that time. The visual artists were not alone in this. In the 1950s and 1960s, London was a mecca for a whole generation of Caribbean writers, intellectuals, and artists who felt at that moment that they had to migrate to fulfill their artistic ambitions. The West Indian novel—of Sam Selvon, George Lamming, V. S. Naipaul, Wilson Harris—was in many ways the product of this migratory movement.

They came, of course, to claim their place as artists in a movement from which, as colonials, they had been marginalized but to which in every other sense they felt they naturally belonged and that, in a way, belonged to them. The promise of decolonization liberated them from any lingering sense of inferiority. Their aim was to engage the art world as equals on its own terrain. In that sense, they shared much with, and were clearly part of, the rising optimism of the Windrush generation of Caribbean migrants, who came in the 1950s and 1960s to make a better life for themselves and their families, and whose jaunty self-confidence is so palpable in the images of their arrival published in the press and magazines at the time. They came because of the colonial connection, however deep their anticolonialism; because it was to many "the mother country," as well as the "mother" of all their troubles. They came to see for themselves, to look it in the eye—and to conquer.

The distinctiveness of this world and its anticolonial mentality may be difficult for younger contemporaries to imagine or inhabit. It may also be difficult now to understand the degree to which modern art was seen by these artists as an international creed, fully consistent with anticolonialism and its profound resistance to the imposition on colonial peoples of false European values. Contemporary art was regarded as essential to a modern consciousness. These artists shared with other colonial intellectuals of their generation an aspiration to destroy the feudal structures of the traditional world they inhabited as well as the foreign institutions associated with colonialism. But their dream was not to restore the ancient past so much as to issue in a new era of progress, change, modernity, and freedom. Critical of the mindless imitation of Western artistic models, they nevertheless saw, as Rasheed Araeen has argued, an engagement with "modern art" as "the only way to deal with the aspirations of our time." They regarded the artistic vocation as a universal calling capable of transcending narrow cultural or historical conditions. They claimed art in the name of "humanity" in general.

Many were already familiar with developments in contemporary Western art and already practicing what they saw as "modern art." Some, no doubt, as Araeen remarked in his Black Manifesto, accepted "the 'supremacy' of Western developments in the contemporary field by following whatever styles [were] developed or produced in the major art centres of the West." But others, certainly, in the spirit of those indigenous "modernisms" that had taken authentic root in the "periphery," subscribed to the views of Herbert Read, one of British modernism's leading apostles, who saw modern art as the attempt "to create forms more appropriate to the sense and sensibility of a new age." These artists were, in that sense, "moderns" in spirit, if not specifically "modernists." They had internalized the spirit of restless innovation, the impulse to "make it new," which defined the modern attitude. Frank Bowling, who left London for the United States in 1966 and who has had an unswerving loyalty to abstraction throughout his career, said, "I believe the Black soul, if there can be such a thing, belongs in Modernism."

Rasheed Araeen put it clearly in The Black Manifesto, albeit with perhaps a stronger "third world" emphasis than many of the first generation would have adopted. He argued that some

Third World artists have taken an entirely different direction, by accepting the challenge of this modern age. While conscious of their own indigenous cultural backgrounds (which they sometimes reflect in their work), they recognize the technological nature of various developments in the West. They consider it their legitimate right to make use of contemporary knowledge in their work ... just as Western artists were able to benefit, and are still benefitting from their knowledge of Afro/Asian traditions.... What is singular about these artists is that they are innovators. Thus they contribute to contemporary developments in their own right, by their own original ideas, concepts and synthesis/antithesis; and more importantly they offer a challenge to Western domination by defying the hegemony of art styles perpetrated and promoted internationally by the transatlantic gallery circuit of the Western world.

There are many parallels with this complex attitude to "the idea of the modern." The Harlem Renaissance aspired to combine the formal mastery of European modernism with what Houston Baker calls "the deformation of mastery" through which the black vernacular could be expressed. There is that vibrant, heady, syncretic, urban culture that surfaced in the 1950s in the mixed areas in some South African cities, providing the matrix out of which the antiapartheid struggle emerged, including that astonishing company of black journalists and photographers grouped around the magazine Drum: Peter Magubane, Bob Gosani, Alf Kumalo, and others. More personally, I remember the young black intellectuals I knew in Kingston, Jamaica, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, dreaming of freedom to the subtle, haunting, but forbiddingly complex and uncompromisingly "modern" tonalities of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. The attitude today—that modernism somehow belonged intrinsically and exclusively to the West, was in effect part of a wider conspiracy to entangle artists in the Western "grand narrative," and that salvation lay in the return to neglected indigenous cultural traditions—is quite alien to this perspective.

This is a question not just of different attitudes but of a different structure of consciousness, different conjunctures. The loss of confidence in the first approach was the cumulative result of a devastating critique which has proved historically decisive. Its complex history would have to include, inter alia, the critique of cultural imperialism developed by the intellectuals and leaders of the anticolonial and national liberation movements, the growing awareness of "the dark side" of the Enlightenment and the ways its universalistic promise has been particularistically appropriated by the West, the searching exposures ofEurocentrism and Orientalism, and the critique of modernism's celebration of "primitivism" which simultaneously opened Western art to non-Western knowledge and appropriated the latter as an exoticized, subordinate support.


Excerpted from Shades of Black by David A. Bailey, Ian Baucom, Sonia Boyce. Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Shades of Black: Assembling the 1980s / David A. Bailey, Ian Baucom, and Sonia Boyce xi

Part One. Texts

Assembling the 1980s: The Deluge—and After / Stuart Hall 1

The Success and Failure of the Black Arts Movement / Rasheed Araeen 21

Wait, Did I Miss Something? Some Personal Musings on the 1980s and Beyond / Keith Piper 35

Inside the Invisible: For/Getting Strategy / Lubaina Himid 41

Iconography after Identity / Kobena Mercer 49

A to Y (Entries for an Inventory of Dented "I"s) / susan pui san lok 59

On Becoming at Artist: Algerian, African, Arab, Muslim, French and Black British? A Dialogue of Visibility / Zineb Sedira in collaboration with Jawad Al-Nawab 67

CoRespondents / Young Soon Min and Allan deSouza 77

Triangular Trades: Late-Twentieth-Century "Black" Art and Transatlantic Cultural Commerce / Judith Wilson 89

Collaborative Projects: Toward a More Inclusive Practice / Dawoud Bey 103

Why Asia Now? Contemporary Asian Art and the Politics of Multiculturalism / Stan Abe 109

Choices for Black Arts in Britain over Thirty Years / Naseem Khan 115

A Case of Mistaken Identity / Gilane Tawadros 123

Color Plates 133

Part Two. The Conference

Conference Papers and Speakers 166

Dialogues / Jean Fisher 167

Part Three. Time Lines

Introduction / Adelaide Bannerman 199

Time Lines 210

Part Four. Recommended Readings

Introduction / Leon Wainwright 307

Histories and Positions 309

Visual Practices 312

Exhibitions and Displays 314

Institutions, Policies, and Reports 316

Contributors 319

Acknowledgments 327

Index 329

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