Sunday, 12 July 2015

Marsha Lowe in conversation with Eddie Chambers: Problems and Progress

Marsha Lowe interviews artist, art historian and curator Eddie Chambers. Eddie Chambers work is featured in No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 - 1990. Marsha Lowe M.A. is a Director of Realism Ltd. a communications consultancy working with the voluntary sector. She studied Arts Policy and Management at The University of London focusing on the issues facing black artists working in contemporary Britain. As a columnist for SABLE Litmag, she continues to write on a variety of topics concerning the enduring global impact of colonialism on contemporary society.

Eddie Chambers: ‘Problems and Progress’

ML: I’d like to begin with Joseph Johnson[i] from your book, Black Artists in British Art, which documents the history of Black artists in this country. I wonder if you could speak a bit about how you feel we're progressing with the task of reinserting ourselves into history? Documenting that people like Johnson existed, had an impact, were part of the infrastructure and the importance of us knowing that for ourselves?

EC: What I would say about Joseph Johnson and that wider history that you just touched upon is I think that raising awareness is an ongoing project. There has been, relatively speaking, a fairly large amount of scholarship researching Black British history so I think that the challenge is making that known to a wider public. There hasn’t been that much in relation to the visual arts although the wider histories are now fairly substantially documented but somehow that material has not yet made its way into a wider consciousness; it exists in its own space. Some publications have come into existence recently, wonderful new material such as the Oxford Companion to Black British History but they need to be more widely known.

ML: Yes, and we’re talking today because of the new art exhibition being held by the Huntley Archives and, now that the Black Cultural Archives are in their new home in Brixton, I wonder what role they might have in terms of trying to disseminate this knowledge to a wider audience?

EC: It’s probably too early to say for definite what contribution the Black Cultural Archives might make but I’m hoping that it will become an established fixture. I’m hoping that one of the contributions it might make is to attract schools, not only in Lambeth or London but across the country. It should be a destination in the same way as the V&A might be or the British Museum; I think it has the potential to make those kinds of contributions. Because once that history can enmesh itself within the school curricula, there’s much more chance of it being normalised and accepted as being part and parcel of British history. I’d love to see schoolchildren from all across the country, of all backgrounds, being taught and learning about the wonderful richness of history including, of course, its black dimensions.
One thing I should also say is that the issue of archiving and collecting material is such a fragile enterprise because it’s very time consuming and it’s very costly to collect material, to assemble it and also to make it available to the wider public. There have been many projects that have come and gone for the want of resources. So this is a major issue because, within Britain, funding is such a major issue. So something can come into existence, it can operate for a couple of years and then it can whither for the want of more funding.

How Much Longer You Bastards, 1983, mixed media on board, Museums Sheffield (on loan to No Colour Bar) © Eddie Chambers, 2012. 
ML: And the lack of that type of sustained support is also an issue for many of the artists featured in your book; I was impressed by their sheer resilience during much of the time you document.

EC: Yes, absolutely. I think in some ways one of the strongest eras of Black artists’ activity was around the early 60s. But we’re talking about quite sporadic exposure. Frank Bowling was probably one of the most energetic and active artists and by 1963-64 he found his career stymied somewhat and his work not being accepted for a couple of important exhibitions. So this thing about one step forward and two steps back, it’s been a feature because we can roll that forward to the 80s where we have a period of astonishing activity in many respects with lots of exhibitions happening around the country but where are those artists now? Several of them are still around but a great number of them have essentially disappeared. So when one hears about exposure for an artist at the present time, it’s quite tempting to wonder how long this exposure will last. Because there is a pattern of certain artists being allowed to have some exposure but that can very rapidly become an historical thing.

ML: I did get the sense when I read your chapter on some of the more prominent Black British artists working today that you felt some doubt as to whether this signalled lasting change.

EC: Yes, and I think it’s too early to say. In some ways the omens for the favoured few are quite good, particularly if one looks internationally. Chris Ofili[ii] recently had a very successful retrospective at the New Museum in New York and just this week Hew Locke[iii] received quite a lot of press coverage for his commissioned work to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. He was born in Edinburgh and raised in Guyana and here he is, an artist selected for quite a major commission. I think the work was unveiled in the presence of the Queen and the Prime Minister, and so on. And so if you’re minded to respect those types of initiatives, then in some ways they can be seen as quite important pointers to some artists at least having a sustained success.

Black Artists in British Art: A History from 1950 to the Present by Eddie Chambers was published in July 2014 by I.B. Tauris

[i] Joseph Johnson was an African seaman in the Merchant Navy century until he was injured and subsequently discharged. Ineligible for assistance because he was not British, he took to busking on the streets of London, where he was drawn with an intricate model of the ship Nelson on his cap in 1815, thus potentially becoming the first Black British visual and performance artist.
[ii] Chris Ofili’s Night and Day retrospective was on exhibit at the New Museum in New York from October 2014 to February 2015.
[iii] Hew Locke’s The Jurors is a permanent artwork that stands at Runnymede and was unveiled by Prince William on 15 June 2015.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Dr Michael McMillan on the Walter Rodney Bookshop

Eric Huntley speaking to a group of people in the Walter Rodney Bookshop (C) Syd Jeffers

Personal Insight: Dr Michael McMillan reflects on his role in curating the Walter Rodney Bookshop. McMillan is a writer, playwright, fine artist and curator of Caribbean heritage and his work often explores migrant narratives and identity. Previous installations such as The West Indian Front Room (2005 – 06), The Living Room of Migrants in the Netherlands (2007 – 2008) and A Living Room Surrounded by Salt (2008) consider the domestic manifestations of race, aesthetic and identity within a physical environment, reanimating the artefacts and experiences housed within them.  

As a second generation Caribbean migrant descendent, born and educated in the UK, I, like many of my peers, was searching for an identity in the culturally and politically charged environment of British society and the African diaspora. We were here to stay and many, including myself, would eventually affirm being Black British, amongst other identities. Personally, part of this journey was searching out spaces where black arts and culture (theatre, literature, music, dance, poetry, and film) were being creatively expressed. Amongst the places that I often visited were bookshops in London such as New Beacon, Grassroots, Headstart, Soma, Centerprise, Sabarr and the Walter Rodney Bookshop. It was a space where I lost myself discovering books that reflected my experience in the diaspora and where I met others of a similar mind-set and spirit. I also remember Jessica and Eric Huntley as committed stalwarts of the cultural revolution taking place at that moment. Therefore, when Colin Prescod and Margaret Andrews approached me from FHALMA to recreate the Walter Rodney Bookshop installation, I relished the opportunity to revisit a seminal moment in my life.

An intensive research process soon began. I immersed myself in the Huntley Archive at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), meticulously collected by Jessica and Eric themselves. The experience has been one of discovery, rediscovery and revelation. This informed the construction of a narrative, which will be communicated through the interactive and multi-media material culture of the Walter Rodney Bookshop. This has also affirmed the intrinsic importance of the archive in black diasporic histories, whose cultural and political experience has often been misrepresented.

Having curated The West Indian Front Room (Geffrye Museum 2005-06), I am interested in the aesthetics of the black diasporic domestic interior and popular culture of the 1970s. Like all good things, Bogle L’Ouverture Publications and the Bookshop began in Jessica and Eric Huntley’s front room. Though they eventually moved into commercial premises, the sense of home pervaded where writers, audiences, readers and the community engaged in a creative yet informal atmosphere. This was radical, this was revolutionary and this still has resonance today. Creativity is about responding to limitations and it has been a pleasure for me to consider, design, source materials and dress the installation.

Curating, like all creative practices, is collaborative and the process has been a team effort with FHALMA as commissioners, LMA providing source materials and the Guildhall Art Gallery housing No Colour Bar exhibition of which the installation is key element. As a free-lance practitioner, it is often a challenging working within different organisational cultures and operational structures, but it is as a learning experience, collaborating and working with practitioners from diverse specialisms.

One of my aspirations as curator is that visitors engage with the Huntley Archive, not as a collection of inanimate things, but a living force mediated by the spirit of Jessica and Eric Huntley. I hope that through their experience, visitors go home and relook at their collections of photographs, letters and documents in suitcases, boxes, lofts, and cupboards. They should also be curious and quiz their elders and begin to value them as living archives as part of the rich tapestry of the black British and diasporic experience.

Front of Walter Rodney Bookshop
London Metropolitan Archives Huntley Collection ref: LMA/4462
© Michael McMillan – June 2015

Monday, 6 July 2015

Beyond the Colour Bar

Creative Insight
No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990 Co-Curator Makeda Coaston offers a poem, Beyond the Colour Bar, personally expressing and engaging with the themes of the show.  

Makeda is a  former Senior Cultural Strategy Officer for the Greater London Authority, a Chief Executive for the Minorities 
Arts Advisory Service, independent consultant, journalist, researcher and writer.

‘Beyond the Colour Bar’

If we could look in the mirror of history
And see our true reflection
We would know how powerful we are

If we would dare to seek -
To search beyond the gaze of others
To read between the lines  
To hear the truth unspoken and maligned

If we could recognize the messengers within our midst –
Those who tell our stories through their lives and works
Those who paint the pictures of our struggles and our hidden dreams,
Those who fight our battles while we look the other way

If we could find the courage to be the authors of our destiny -  

We can/
Some do/
It’s up to me and you!

Makeda Coaston

Exhibition Co-Curator

Thursday, 2 July 2015

No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 - 1990

Errol Lloyd, Notting Hill Carnival, 1988, oil on canvas. (C) Errol Lloyd
At first look, the No Colour Bar exhibition seems like a straightforward showcase of works by artists within BLK Art group or with similar concerns. Beginning in the 1980s and coinciding with international political developments in racial independence and equality, the work of black British artist’s were finally recognised within the artist community. Artists of this movement shared a collective exploration of their British African-Caribbean identity through a politicised frame. Artists such as Eddie Chambers, Denzil Forrester, Sonia Boyce and Keith Piper critiqued institutionalised racism, class and gender relations in the UK. The exhibition draws its name from the ‘colour bar’ that formally and unofficially racially segregated communities across the world.

Whilst No Colour Bar features artists directly related to this group, it is so much more than a prescriptive presentation of this movement. Challenging the assumption that artists originating from migrant communities suddenly came into being in the 1980s, the exhibition explores the environments, both physical and cultural, that lead to the flourishing of art, music, poetry and literature in this period.

No Colour Bar reimagines this period of cultural heritage through the Bogle-L’Ouverture bookshop installation. Opened in 1969 by Jessica and Eric Huntley, the exhibition recreates the feeling of the bookshop -  a meeting place and cultural hub for African Caribbean, and other migrant communities, artists, writers and activists.  Hosting workshops, readings and lectures it was central not only to campaigns to equality but also academia.  This physical embodiment of the publishing house will allow for a multi-sensory experience of a real life environment, incorporating sound and visuals as well as art and artefacts. It was here that a political, artistic and cultural mobilisation was established and later influenced the numerous artists of the Black British Art movement.

The exhibition is based on the lifeworks of Eric and Jessica Huntley, who founded Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications in 1969, and the community efforts they championed.  As one of the first black-owned independent publishers in the UK, it gave a voice for writers with African Caribbean, and other diasporas, descent a space to explore their experiences which were under-represented and side-lined in the collective culture. Prevalent themes concerned presenting an accurate Black history, racism, colonisation and discrimination. Through the Huntley Archives, the exhibition explores the cultural milieu and shared concerns that permeated through not only art, but literature too.

No Colour Bar stirringly explores the art of British migrant communities whilst comprehensively considering the political and historical foundations that these artists drew upon. Rather than presenting the work of Black artists as divorced from their cultural terrain, the exhibition seeks to recreate this through art, original documents, letters, images and press cuttings.  Crucially, the numerous endeavours of these artists and activists is not shown as separate from the rest of London’s history, but a key element within its multiculturalist construct. The exhibition faithfully refutes its namesake, ‘no colour bar’ by championing the celebration of identity, race and culture that shaped Britain on the 1960- 1990s. By presenting the radical efforts of activist Britons to break down cultural barriers, it continues this struggle and, in the exhibition, erases the barrier between art and viewer through a multi-sensory, multi-faceted approach.

No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 - 1990 is a FREE exhibition, opening on the 10th July 2015 at the Guildhall Art Gallery and running until 24th January 2016.