Black is Back in Britain – But Then, has it Ever Really Gone Away?

Fake Death Picture (The Suicide - Manet), 2011 Digital chromogenic print / 148.59 x 180.98 x 4.13 cm, Edition of 5 © Yinka Shonibare / DACS, London / Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai

Last summer Tate Britain celebrated 50 years of Black Art. The walls in the rooms at Somerset House, where the Get Up Stand Up Nowexhibition took place, featured photos from the likes of Armet Francis and Vanley Burke, canvases from contemporary painter Grace Wales Bonner and film clips directed by Jenn Nkiru. Work from John Akomfrah, Steve McQueen and Sonia Boyce also featured. 

Get Up Stand Up Now was also the first retrospective for Guyanese-born British artist Frank Bowling exhibition. He was then aged 85. But many of the artists featured were part of what has become known as the Windrush Generation.

Exhibition celebrating the past 50 years of Black creativity in Britain and beyond – Source: somersethouse

Will black artists’ fame equal black musicians?

No-one in the art world denies that the three-month-long exhibition was a long time coming. But sculptor and Get Up Stand Up Now curator and sculptor Zak Ové is convinced black artists are finally getting their due. Their prints, images and sculptures are taking up valuable room in museums, galleries and private exhibitions throughout the UK. Will there be a time when black artists become as well-known as black musicians?

And yet, it was during the 80s in the UK capital that “black art” first made its presence felt. Then it was at another exhibition – this time called The Other Story – and presented at the Hayward Gallery towards the end of the decade. Work by Lubaina Himid (a Turner Prize winner in 2017, aged 63), Keith Piper and Eddie Chambers featured. But the grande dame at the time (even though she was still in her twenties) was Sonia Boyce – a feminist and one of a group of fellow female artists who brought politics into art by questioning colonization. 

Black art versus Thatcher politics

The same decade saw Eddie Chambers work Destruction of the National Front – a sequence of four collages, the first featuring the union jack turned into an image of a swastika. The image becomes increasingly torn until it is unrecognisable in the last collage. Chambers created the work while still a student in a response to an interview by PM Margaret Thatcher when she emphasised with fear by “the British people of being swamped by coloured immigrants.”  The artwork was later bought and featured at The Tate.

Influence of Charles Saatchi and The Turner 

A decade later a 30-year-old Chris Ofili became the first black artist to win the controversial Turner Prize. That was in 1998. The previous year his controversial The Holy Virgin appeared in collector Charles Saatchi’s famous London Sensation exhibition. It later sold for $4.5 million. Meanwhile, another rising star alongside Ofili was Yinka Shonibare. In 2018, his Girl Balancing Knowledge, would go on to sell for nearly $330,000 at Christie’s. Another of Saatchi’s ‘favoured black artists’ was Henry Taylor who today features in America’s impressive Blum & Poe gallery. 

In 2010 Ofili appeared alongside the likes of Picasso, Isaac Julien, Ellen Gallacher and Kara Walker at the Tate Liverpool in an exhibition looking at aesthetic and cultural hybridity in Modern and Contemporary art.

The same year saw the exhibition, Thin Black Line(s.), in Tate Britain, curated by another figurehead of black art, Lubaina Himid. She went on to receive an MBE for the promotion of black women in Art.

Black artists who sell for $ millions 

Coming more up-to-date, Lynette Yiadom Boakye’s painting The Hours Behind You sold for a record $1.6 million at Sotheby’s in 2017. In that same year Hurvin Anderson’s Is it OK to be black was short-listed and shown at the Tate. A later work by Anderson would fetch $3.4 million at auction.

But even black artists whose work isn’t shown in exhibitions around the country, or lauded by the likes of Charles Saatchi, still have the possibility of international recognition, says Ové. The reason for this? Social media.

 “It’s very fertile right now, and there are lots of reasons for that,” he said. “We’re in the digital age, where you’ve got a generation that can share work online globally.”

Self-promotion and cultural access have never been so easy…

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