The art movement that redefined Britain

The art movement that redefined Britain

What does it mean to be a British artist? The British Black Arts Movement introduced the world to a side of Britain that had been previously kept out of museums and galleries.

Haja Marie Kanu

8 min read

Lubaina Himid, The Carrot Piece, 1985

Against a backdrop of escalating racial violence and regional economic decline in the 1970s, a group of Black art students from the West Midlands set out to change the cultural landscape. The impact of the British Black Arts Movement, while rarely discussed, shaped the world that we know today and helped put Black Britain on the cultural map.

Sonia Boyce, From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born ‘Native’ Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction, 1987

Making Black Britain

Black people have been in Great Britain for centuries, but in the 1970s and 1980s, a new generation was coming of age. They were the children of the Windrush generation –  people who moved from Britain’s former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean after World War II. Unlike previous generations, they were overwhelmingly born and raised in the UK. As cultural theorist Stuart Hall puts it, “their experience has been in the UK and in the black diaspora in black families, in the black community.” In other words, they were Black British.

Black British identity was also a rebellious response to the racism Black people were experiencing in Britain. By the late-1960s race tensions in the UK had reached boiling point. In 1968 Enoch Powell gave his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that stoked racist anti-immigrant sentiment in the country. The 70s saw the rise of the far-right National Front and racist patrols.

Black British identity was born out of survival. Communities from all over the country, and from myriad cultures and ethnic backgrounds could rally under the umbrella of Black Britishness because of their common experiences, both good and bad. As this new identity was forged, a new culture was crafted alongside it –  one that would need new modes of expression. New music, new language, new art! 

Today Black British culture is a mainstay on the global cultural map, but the battle for visibility was hard fought. With such humongous barriers to entry, Black Brits struggled to gain access to the same platforms as their white counterparts.

Handsworth Riots, Birmingham, UK 1985 Pogus Caesar/OOM Gallery Archive, all rights reserved

From the Blk Art Group to the British Black Arts Movement

Sick of rampant racism in the streets and tutors telling them “there’s no such thing as Black art”, a group of students formed a collective called the Blk Art Group. Members included the likes of Eddie Chambers, Donald Rodney, Claudette Johnson, Marlene Smith, and Keith Piper. The group was founded in Wolverhampton at a time of growing race tensions and regional economic decline. According to Marlene Smith, there was an attitude of collectivism in response to the unstable social climate – “There was a sense of urgency and a need to do something about it, and in order to do something about it you needed to work together.”

As young Black artists, they wanted to highlight the problems facing Black people in the UK through their art. They worked in many different mediums and aesthetic traditions but they had a radical vision in common. Keith Piper describes his work at the time as “messy and esoteric… I clattered together found objects and jarringly incongruous texts intended to disorientate or – as I would attempt to argue at the time – to ‘funk’ the viewer.” Meanwhile, Claudette Johnson repurposed classical techniques to illuminate Black women who had been confined to the shadows, and Donald Rodney filled volumes of sketchbooks with black ink drawings of the most violent brutality. 

Lubaina Himid, The Carrot Piece, 1985

Frank Bowling, Sacha Jason, Guyana Dreams, 1989

Eddie Chambers, Destruction of the National Front, 1979

It wasn’t enough for the Blk Art Group to just create art, it also had to be seen – and crucially be seen by other Black people. They got to work organising exhibitions – the first was Black Art An’ Done at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in 1981. Although they were not aware of it at the time it was “perhaps the first time the term ‘Black Art’ had been used in a British art context.” 1981 also saw the publication of the Scarman Report, which called out widespread racism across UK institutions.

In 1982, Blk Art Group organised the First National Convention of Black Art “to discuss the form, functioning and future of Black Art.” Established Black artists like Frank Bowling, as well as art students like Lubaina Himid and Sonia Boyce came together on 28th October 1982 for lively discussions on key issues for Black artists. The Convention is remembered as the beginning of the British Black Arts Movement. After that day it could no longer be said that there was no such thing as Black Art.

The Blk Art Group had dissipated by 1984 but it had laid the groundwork for a much bigger movement – the British Black Arts movement, also known as Bam. Together, they transformed the cultural landscape of the UK.

What does British Black Art mean?

The name British Black Arts Movement paid homage to the earlier Black Art Movement in the Civil Rights era United States. The name recognised the shared struggle against racism by Black people across the globe, such as in the USA or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The British Black Arts Movement was similarly politically engaged. This is true not just in the contents of the work but also in the stated goals: carving out space for Black people in arts and educating the public on the history and present of race in Britain through their art.

That is not to say that all of the art was specifically anti-racist, or that Black Art can only be about race. The British Black Arts movement was not homogenous, there were many differences in opinion at the time about what the movement was and what its concerns should be. Feminism was one such point of contention, with some Black women artists being made to feel that their work was too concerned with womanhood and not enough with Blackness. And that is assuming that Blackness is any one thing.

It was urgent, however, for the artists to prove that Black was something rather than nothing.  Stuart Hall pointed out the irony of advocating for Black subjectivity when the art world was obsessed with postmodernism. The death of the subject might be a central idea in postmodern art, but it was only possible after the subject had been constructed over a century of modernism. Most artists of the British Black Arts Movement felt that they didn’t have that luxury. Think of the messaging from art school tutors that there was no such thing as Black art, the implication there is that there is no such thing as Black artists. As Lubaina Himid puts it “fancy having got to 1986 and managing to prove that you exist.” The British Black Arts Movement set out to prove not only that Black artists exist, but that they are creating work unlike anything the art world had seen before.

Flyer from ‘Black Art an’ Done’ at the Wolverhampton Art Centre, 1981

Donald Rodney, Sketchbook, Number 3,

Rasheed Araeen described the ‘Black’ of the British Black Arts Movement as the condition “of belonging to a postcolonial world: that is, not belonging to the centre but to the periphery.” In other words, to be Black British at the time meant being on the outside – especially where the art world is concerned. It is doubly interesting then, that the British Black Arts Movement also evolved away from the cultural centre, in the West Midlands rather than London with all its large historic museums. The challenge for the British Black Arts Movement was how to represent the experience of being on ‘the outside’, locked out of galleries and written out of history.

There is no single answer. When Lubaina Himid would curate group shows under the banner of Black art she would prove that “there were as many different things going on as there were artists in it.” You cannot point to any one artist to represent what Black art means. Black art is an idea more than it is an object. No one artist claimed to represent Black art in its entirety, but each Black artist was a reflection of one facet of it. Just like the culture that birthed it, it is art that is about survival. The aesthetics of the British Black Arts Movement were creole by nature – a constantly evolving language created through the mish-mash of a thousand different experiences of the outside.

Legacy of the British Black Arts Movement

Last year the British Black Arts movement turned 40. To mark the occasion there was an anniversary celebration hosted at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, South London. Original members of the Blk Art Group were photographed alongside emerging Black British artists. What is astounding when you look at this photograph is how young this pioneering generation still is. It was not so long ago that they were art school students with big dreams of changing the harsh world they were born into, and the elitist art world they wanted to break into.

The world was slow to recognise the tremendous impact of Black British artists, but many of the Blk Art Group members went on to have long storied careers working as artists, educators, and curators. Lubaina Himid became the first Black woman to win the Turner Prize in 2017. Sonia Boyce represented the UK at the 2022 Venice Biennale. Eddie Chambers is a Professor of Art History at the University of Texas in Austin. Sadly Donald Rodney passed away in 1998 at 37 – his sketchbooks were acquired by the Tate Collection.

The success of the British Black Arts Movement is also embodied in the generations that followed. Jean Fisher called Steve McQueen and Yinka Shonibare the artistic successors of the British Black Arts Movement. In their work, we still see that commitment to telling the untold stories of Black Britain, of spotlighting Black experience, and an engagement in the urgent social questions of the times. The movement tore down barriers to access for Black artists, and fought for Black Britain’s place on the cultural map.

Photograph celebrating the 40 year anniversary of the British Black Arts Movement, 2022, Courtesy of Black Cultural Archives

Go Deeper

Learn more about Stuart Hall’s influential cultural theory via the Stuart Hall Foundation.

Discover more Black British history at the Black Cultural Archives

Check out Eddie Chambers’ book Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s.

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