Reflections on an overdue discussion

Shaneka Tara Williams, a Black British visual artist currently undertaking a BA in Fine Art and Art History at Liverpool Hope University, offers her thoughts on BAM’s ‘The Work Between Us’ symposium at the Bluecoat, Liverpool, 20 January 2016.

Throughout my art education I’ve been introduced to a number of artists whose practice continues to be championed globally, fetching millions at Sotheby’s and the like. Whilst I won’t degrade my pre-university education I can’t help but feel disheartened by the euro-centric vision of art history that permeates our education. It wasn’t until I came to university that I was introduced to a plethora of Black (politically speaking) artists. As a Black British artist, it was encouraging to find so many artists whose work dealt with similar issues as my own.

Since gaining such consciousness I’ve made an effort to attend exhibitions that chronicle the contributions of Black/ Black British artists to art history. Last year I visited No Colour Bar (2015) at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London, and a subsequent discussion. This year the symposium The Work Between Us: Black British Artists and Exhibition Histories has opened new areas of exploration for me. I was quite interested in Paul Goodwin’s presentation on Rasheed Araeen’s contributions to art and literature. Listening to Goodwin narrate Araeen’s struggles to put on The Other Story (1989-1990), which was initially proposed in 1978, reminded me of similar issues within film, music, journalism and the media. I was particularly struck by Araeen’s reference to ‘the white pyramid’. He describes society as a white pyramid of power and influence, but acknowledges that there are cracks in this façade, that enable other stories – beyond the norm – to be told. This concept has led me to start a series of works that addresses this structural idea, because of its apt image, and its contemporary applications. Instead of rejoicing at the cracks that enable a small minority of BAME people to infiltrate the system, we should demolish the pyramid, and rebuild so that everyone has equal access.

Having this important event in Liverpool opened up the opportunity to discuss relevant exhibitions in the North West, such as Black Skin/Bluecoat (1985) and Trophies of Empire (1992-1993). Black Skin/Bluecoat (1985) featured the work of four Black British artists: Sonia Boyce, Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers and Tam Joseph. During the symposium Boyce raised the issue of exhibitions such as this, which contribute to the othering of non-white artists, and their art. This is an issue that has arisen in various discussions. It leads to conversations that should be about art, being dominated by issues of race. Whilst I understand why grouping artists together based on race could cause controversy, I think that if these collectives are formed away from the gallery, it is less problematic. In my opinion what needs to happen is a showcasing of work from various movements, from artists across the globe to enable cross-cultural comparisons, thus creating a less Eurocentric view of art, whilst also avoiding deliberate race framing.

This symposium was a great start to a long overdue discussion on the contributions of Black British artists to British art history. I look forward to seeing what else comes out of the Black Artists and Modernism project.

As part of the Black Artists & Modernism project, there are unfolding discussions amongst the research team and with scholars, artists, curators and other engaged publics.

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