Dr Beccy Kennedy (Senior Lecturer at Manchester School of Art and Early Careers Researcher) reflects on ‘The Work Between Us’ symposium, 20 January 2016, the Bluecoat, Liverpool
The Other Story is the title of Rasheed Araeen’s 1989 black British artists’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. It was also the subject of the first conference led by the Black Artists & Modernism AHRC-funded project, held at the Bluecoat in January 2016 – which itself sought to revisit or redress this key exhibition and its relationship to black modernism. Here, I will outline some of the salient issues around black British art of the 1980s/early 1990s, which were raised at the conference and consider their relevance to some of my own research into diasporic art in Britain. The Black Artists & Modernism project is led by researchers who themselves have been integral to black British artistic, curatorial and academic practices over the past four decades. Their discursive collaboration provides a vital reopening and collective narration of former Postcolonial interrogations of modernism and black representativeness. Critical discussions around the terminology that had been employed in relation to black art in the postcolonial era – and since, formed a significant part of the conference papers and the surrounding discussion, as might have been predicted. However, previously unseen or little known experiences, observations, exhibition leaflets and other archival forms of evidence around black art in post-war Britain came together, notably, at the conference. This created a new interdisciplinary, discursive platform from which black artists and curators could be seen and heard – from beyond the lexicon of poststructural, postcolonial text books or government policy papers around diversity.
I will avoid saying that The Other Story was seminal in its capacity to represent Modern or contemporary artists of black and Asian descent in Britain, not just because such a statement could be viewed as terminologically and conceptually problematic, but also because the oft used adjective ‘seminal’ itself references a patriarchal system. This was addressed in the first paper of the conference, by Lucy Steeds, in her ‘retelling of The Other Story now’ (as well as by artist Sutapa Biswas at the time of the 1989 exhibition, as speakers recalled). Steeds pointed out how only four artists of the twenty four within the exhibition were women. This museological analysis is crucial for its relevance to discussions of black British art that took place throughout the day, because of its allusion to intersectional identity politics, which suggests that strands of identity formation and their representativeness can never be entirely mutually exclusive. If we identify as being something different to the mainstream and this process of identification is important because of its suggested subalterity, then redressing the subaltern – and all it entails – becomes significant. If we are ‘other’, why are others also other? Did The Other Story adequately represent these untold narratives of the time?
The answer can only ever be piecemeal. Opinions are varied and reliant on memories, on oral histories and on archives – the latter of which is now being actively assembled as a part of the Black Artists & Modernism initiative. The conference examined exhibition historicism, both as a generic museological concern and as a method for exploring black British art historical practices and the potential lack or absence of their representation. Today, we see the artworks through the filters of their retelling, as well as via those lenses which were put in place by the curators – and writers of their choosing – at the time. This was highlighted in the conference’s plenary session, where artist Nina Edge said that,
‘For artists it is always about the next piece of art. We don’t always make art for an exhibition. Today has been about exhibitions…Our work is often coopted into narratives in a way which is ‘poorly framed”.
Similarly, Marlene Smith argued, in a discussion of The Image Employed: The Use of Narrative in Black Art exhibition (Cornerhouse, 1987) with her co-curator Keith Piper, that ‘the focus should be on practice rather than on the municipal.’ Art made by black artists doesn’t have to be about national belonging, blackness, or absence of whiteness. Perhaps contrary to this, in the plenary session Edge referenced the ‘rejection and fear climate’ for black artists, commenting that it was through their exclusion from the mainstream system that artists found each other. Arguably, this then enabled them to establish discursive, artistic groups. This connects to my research about second generation Chinese British artists of the late 1980s and 1990s in relation to a case study of Manchester’s Chinese Arts Centre / Centre For Chinese Contemporary Art, conducted in 2014. Kwong Lee (one of the artists and former curators at the Chinese Arts Centre and now Director of Castlefield Gallery), recalled during an interview I conducted with him how when he was at art college in the late 1980s, he was introduced to the work of Sonia Boyce and that this impacted on his practice;
‘I looked at The Other Story – it’s a seminal exhibition. Sonia Boyce was inspiring because she looked at identity, for example with ‘She Aint Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose).’ There is a strong connection to the audience. In my second year at college I did something similar with my Dad holding a wok in a suit. It spoke to me in terms of how art can communicate something different and new. It wasn’t necessarily that I was identifying with black culture, it was how they were employing art to explore cultural identity.’ (Kwong Lee, interview, 10 February, 2014, in Kennedy: 2016)
Susan Pui San Lok discussed in the plenary how more nuanced cultural interpretations of black artistic practices are needed from both within and beyond Britain, referencing the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, which, through its location, links the Asian experience to British colonialism. Like Lee, she mentioned the interesting, discursive space of black art discourse – with reference to the conversations entailed so far on the Black Artists & Modernism project – but Lok also highlighted the ‘problematic readings of blackness’ and their relation to the multicultural ‘tickboxes system’. Herein lie two problems. The first is that of black political-ghettoisation and pigeonholing, or the Postcolonial implosion. The second is that of ‘black’ as a category, which may not translate automatically to Chinese or other Asian experiences. Debates around blackness in Britain came to the fore in the 1970s, in relation to conceptualisations of diasporic consciousness and the subalterity of postcolonial, commonwealth migrants. Swaby (2014) describes how the term implied a subaltern togetherness and a ‘mobilising strategy’ which worked to ‘de-centre the power and privilege distinctive to whiteness,’ even though some contingencies within this all-encompassing framework, such as British Chinese artists, may in fact feel marginalised by the term black. Yeh discussed this when she investigated how in the 1990s, emerging second generation, British-Chinese artists had to ‘negotiate their positions’ in relation to the former black art movement (2000:67). The term ‘people of colour’ has since come into use, though this can also be criticised for its suggestion that people without colour are the proemial norm, since the term ‘without colour’ is never applied. Other terms used, include Black Minority Ethnic (BME) and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME). With each category used to represent ‘non-white’ identity, inequality is foregrounded, and whilst it is essential to highlight inequalities, their designation is not always useful for creating an environment of natural inclusiveness. Critics from such ‘BAME’ backgrounds commenting in the recent Guardian article – ‘Is it time to ditch the term ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic’ (BAME)?’ – seemed to agree that the labels used themselves are meaningless for everyday vernacular but important for policy making, religious tolerance and for equalising workforces (which includes in the art world):
‘So what was once a simple black/white thing became multicoloured. And our race terminology has been struggling to keep up ever since. And it’s about more than just labels: because the issues our ethnic-minority populations face are changing too.’ (Harker: 2015)
‘No one actually uses “black and minority ethnic” to describe the colour of their own skin or their heritage – it is a way of talking about a group in the abstract. Yes, it is simply code for “not white”, but sometimes – to measure representation, progression, or bias – we absolutely must lump all non-white people together.’ (Green: 2015)
If the art world, and opportunities within it, is still predominately white then black art or BAME art is, arguably, a necessary label. Even if it is inadequate or problematic, there is no getting away from the fact that it has been used and with intention. The current Black Artists & Modernism research group examined, crucially, this problematic historiographic context at the conference. Modernism, which one way or another, was inextricably bound to Enlightenment thinking, industrialisation and European expansionism (colonialism) is a contested movement and one which is almost, though not entirely, white-dominated. In this sense, it is important to consider the place of black people – or blackness – within its history and also within the subsequent movement of postmodernism. The Other Story – as well as the Magiciens de la Terre (1989, Pompidou Centre) – are the go-to case studies for examining black modernism and black postmodernism – and the entanglement between them. However, speakers at the conference, such as Bryan Biggs and Alice Correia, proposed analyses of alternate – and less referenced – black art exhibitions of the same period, such as those held at the Horizon Gallery, The Black Art Gallery or The Trophies of Empire, held at Bluecoat. These have sometimes been overlooked within what Leon Wainwright referred to as the ‘historiographic drive,’ that exhibition histories may not only be white dominated but also over-simplified and selective in terms of black exhibitions. Araeen’s work, not just in creating The Other Story, but also in establishing the Third Text journal and other publications and through his own practice, is often heralded as the key driver for representing black British art in Britain. Paul Goodwin, in his paper ‘11 Years: Notes Towards A Pre-History of The Other Story’ examined the ‘prehistory’ of The Other Story in relation to the work of Araeen. He described how his ‘polyvocal and hybrid art practice helped to shape a new problem space that did not exist before.’ This space, perhaps, coalesces with the postcolonial diasporic ‘third space’- to reference Bhaba (1994), but also constitutes a gap or lag within the narrative of modernism. The Other Story was a self-conscious call for a social consciousness around modernism’s lack. However, some discussants during the conference were concerned that modernism was still employed as an art historical trope within the exhibition, thereby centralising its narrative whilst trying to position black art within it. Whether Araeen traced a multiplicity of modernisms or contested its whiteness, modernism and, implicated within this, modernity, is still proposed as an anterior historical position against which other discourses should be placed. Can black modernism exist without running alongside white modernism?
This depends on how you define modernism and how you explore its histories. ‘Colonial modernism’ can be viewed as an alternate modernism which worked to protest against European modernist styles from within the colonies. An example of this would be the Bombay Progressives art group who, during the Raj, both utilised and re-invented European painting styles, arguably creating an Indian interpretation of modernism and modernity. To some extent this was a parallel modernism but ultimately its existence is dependent on the anteriority of European modernism. It is worth recognising, however, that colonised modernisms did demonstrate agency within modernising processes. Modernism, then, was disrupted, partially from within – in terms of what Ranciere describes as ‘dissensus’ (2010). Modernism was not stopped, it was simultaneously utilised and contested. The issue is, perhaps, as to whether the narrative of postmodernism became part of this dissent for black artists in the 1980s and 1990s in a way which enabled them to be active drivers of postmodern art, rather than back-seat disrupters. For Wainwright, it is an issue of ‘temporality;’ the trajectories of second or third generation artists responding to modernism and postmodernism need to be considered beyond the historical mainstream. ‘By setting up a separate story, it suggests incompleteness’ (Wainwright, 2016). But in a sense some of these histories and art histories are incomplete, absenting or belittling black people and women from within their processes. If we consider the complete self as one with agency – with ‘bare rights’ (Agamben: 1998) – then the history of modernism does need to be considered in conjunction with European expansionist forms of slavery and colonialism, which oppressed people with black skin. Postmodernism and new spatio-temporal or ‘Cosmopolitan Modernisms’ (Mercer: 2005) can be seen to have revised Western modernism’s critical shortcomings but for how long will we – the diverse we – apply a prefix to modernism to describe these movements, thereby implying the continuation of the ancillary? Does our terminology need to change again or is it enough to continuously critique modernism? If we do this steadily enough, the historiographies of art will (continue to?) change but only if we also invest in – as with this research project – wider, intersecting (art)historical resources and interpretations of art practice and display from the modern period onwards and their associated vocabularies so that modernism – and all that it signifies – is no longer the primary story from which to speak.
Agamben, Georgio (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford, Stanford UP.
Bhaba, Homi (1994) The Location of Culture, London, Routledge.
Kennedy, Beccy ‘Outside Chinatown: The Evolution of Manchester’s Chinese Arts Centre as a Cultural Translator for Contemporary Chinese Art,’ Modern China Studies, January 2016, 23: 1, 8-23
Swaby, N.A. 2014, “‘disparate in voice, sympathetic in direction’: gendered political blackness and the politics of solidarity”, Feminist Review, vol. 108, no. 1, pp. 11-25.
Mercer, Kobena (2005) Cosmopolitan Modernisms, London, Iniva.
Okolosie, Lola, Harker, Joseph, Green, Leah & Emma Dabiri, ‘Is it time to ditch the term ‘black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME)’? The Guardian [online] [accessed 23 February 2016] Friday 22 May 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/22/black-asian-minority-ethnic-bame-bme-trevor-phillips-racial-minorities
Rancière, Jacques (2010) Dissensus: on Politics and Aesthetics, London: Bloomsbury.
Yeh, Diana, ‘Ethnicities on the Move: ‘British-Chinese’ art – identity, subjectivity, politics and beyond,’ Critical Quarterly, Summer 2000, 42:2, pp 65-89.