The title Framing Black Visual Arts suggests that Monday’s forum was going to be as succinct, ordered and definable as its moniker. That, it was not. It was, however, an engaging, multi-faceted discussion attempting to engage with the exhibition and Black British art itself.
A conversion took place between Eddie Chambers and Errol Lloyd, led by artist, writer and curator Sonia Dyer. Eddie Chambers is an art historian, writer, artist whose work features in No Colour Bar, and an associate professor of Art and Art History at the University of Austin. Errol Lloyd is a writer and artist of the Caribbean Artists Movement, also producing illustrations for the Bogle L’Ouverture Publications. Eddie and Errol acted as dynamic creative archives, with Chambers representing the artistic aspect of the exhibition from a later generation, whereas Lloyd showcased his close personal relationship with the Huntley’s and the Caribbean artist movement.
It was fantastic to hear about CAM from a member of the group, with Lloyd expressing that CAM was made up of various creative practitioners who originally did not define themselves through their colour. ‘As time went on, and with the new generation, the question of identity had to be addressed’.
Sonia asked if he was aware that he was creating a culture, Lloyd explained that they were aware nothing like this had been done before, Black publishers with such political foundations. L’Ouverture was partially born out of a desire to raise funds for Walter Rodney when he was excluded from Jamaica in 1968.
Both guests offered a personal link to the tense raced history of Britain, with Chambers noting the strong anti immigrant sentiment expressed by the National Front. Lloyd explained the outreach to American civil right and the South African Apartheid struggles in Britain, which he thinks may have strengthened the pan-african sense. ‘I think some of the reasons for this is through finding a common cause with struggles in world’.
The panel discussed the duality of being Black and British, with Lloyd remembering thinking that the future generation would be British Nationals and thus have a different outlook to migrants like himself.
The forum took time to look back at Ronald Moody, whose desire to work in an african style was unusual but it’s timeless and static nature was something which Moody wished to allude to. Lloyd also expressed his sympathy for Moody, who was not able to work on the epic monumental scale that his work he was inspired by - ‘imagine if he had the resources on the scale of which other artists were better funded, like Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth’.
Chambers noted that Moody’s relative prominence to other Black artists is down to the efforts of his niece who tirelessly worked to conserve his collection but Moody himself was never able to enjoy this success. ‘There is a big problem in retrospectively insinuating an artist into a slot when he has died, the real benefit would be to influence another generation and peers their is lifetime’.
For Chambers, the history of Black artists have had regular peaks and troughs but not a sustained apotheosis - ‘I long to wander into a gallery, where, in any part of the country, where there is an exhibition [of Black artists] just for the sake of it. Chambers expressed that he saw Black Artists exhibited in an abnormal context, in a raced environment. An audience member argued that there are a large number of exhibiting Black artists who aren’t celebrated merely to tick a box. Lamenting the lack of formalistic considerations of the art, using the talk itself as an example of how context often overshadows the actual art.
A second audience member asked what made race so persistent that it often refuses to disappear regardless of where the artist is located. Chambers echoed these sentiments, that we are born into a world shaped by racial characteristics and experiences – with press responses to artists playing a monumental role in its reception. For Chambers, art critics tend to focus on imagined racial narratives, which are clumsy, heavy handed and blinkered. These responses aren’t reflections of the artists, but the prejudices of the critics and the entire artist institution.
Audience member Gus John, who discovered both Bogle L’Ouverture and New Beacon Books in his early 20s, emphasises that ‘our creativity has never ever been defined circumscribed by racism. Race may have become a context that enables us to use culture in the service of political defiance. When they get racialised in Britain because of its perpetual race narrative… it is suggesting we can’t make any contribution to society unless we are identified by them’.
One audience member asked ‘Why are they being apologetic [about being defined as a Black artist when we attempt to express visually our historical experience. When a British artist goes to America, they are called a British artist’. Eddie pointed out that the label ‘British’ is not constraining in a crude or blunt way whereas Black African artist is constraining, if it is the only category your work is located within. Another audience member offered ‘If an artist is working with the right type of curator, the art can be appreciated for the right type of quality’.
As the talk drew to a close, so much hung in what was unsaid and the endless discussion of Black Art that could have taken place whether socio-political, formalistic or racial. What stuck with me was the comment about how by focusing on the context of the artist, their race and heritage, the artwork itself is neglected. This was pertinent, something I agreed with. But I also think the beauty of an art and archival exhibition is that the work is not divorced from its social, cultural and political history. It is not denied, and by embracing the textured history surrounding the art, the tireless efforts of Jessica and Eric, and countless others, is celebrated, remembered and legitimised. This is crucial when Britain’s terse race relations can often be denied or forgotten in the face of more visible historical struggles in the USA and South Africa. The evening was not long enough, and the conversations continued as audience members left their seats, hopefully inspired, provoked and no doubt desiring to continue these crucial discussions in their own personal environments.