Eddie Chambers looks at five Black British artists who represent the fascinating sweep of a neglected art history.
Traditionally, scholarship on the history of British Art has tended to exclude or ignore Black artists. Enough. Eddie Chambers’ new book, Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s – out this week – represents a substantial and comprehensive attempt to create a narrative in which Black artists take up their rightful places in British art history. A great many artists are mentioned in the book, which starts with the pioneering generation of Caribbean-born artists, who arrived in the mid 20th century, through to the current generation, a number of whom are no strangers to art establishment nominations and accolades. The artists briefly discussed below – Winston Branch, Denzil Forrester, Donald Rodney, Permindar Kaur and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye represent something of the fascinating sweep of practices discussed in the book, taking the reader through some 60 or so years of a neglected history.
Winston Branch (1947-)
Whilst St Lucian-born Winston Branch is frequently associated with non-figurative painting, his work West Indian stands out as a marked exception. In 1973 Branch painted a portrait of a Caribbean man, casually dressed, wearing a distinctive pink bobble hat. The gentleman in question seems very much at home amongst the vivid assortment of colours and shapes and it appears as though he is leaving one room, the walls of which are colourfully decorated, and entering another, even more flamboyantly decorated space. There is an enormous sense of persona about Branch’s character, and his workaday, yet stylish appearance casually but absolutely, evokes the spirit, dress sense, visual culture and sensibilities of the early 1970s.
Denzil Forrester (1956-)
A decade later, the narratives had changed somewhat, and Grenadian-born Denzil Forrester’s paintings captured the tension and the menace of the intrusive and unwelcome policing that was often a feature of how society viewed Black cultural expressions, particularly those influenced by Rastafarianism. In his painting Police in Blues Club (1985), Forrester depicted a club scene, complete with prancing revellers and carousing youth. The painting’s unsettling elements took the form of two motionless police officers, positioned towards the back of the venue, in the background of the painting, silently and with no apology conducting surveillance; the embodiment of menace.
Donald Rodney (1961-1998)
A new generation of artists embraced the found object in ways that were original and refreshing. In the early 1990s Brummie Donald Rodney borrowed and assembled a large number of cheap sporting trophies. These he displayed, embellished with labels that represented “half truths and [half] lies” within glass cabinets or on shelves. This work, laced with irony, suggested that Black people had been given or had had forced onto them, twisted and skewed identities by the dominant society and its media mouthpieces. By using trophies, Rodney was also able to draw fresh attention to the supposed sporting prowess that simultaneously economically liberated and societally-trapped Black people. As Rodney noted, “A black sportsman can receive both cheers of appreciation and taunts of racial abuse. This truism is entrenched into the contemporary fabric of black life.”
A native of Nottingham, Permindar Kaur was an original artistic voice to emerge in the 1990s. One of her most celebrated pieces was Innocence, a religiously specific piece of work consisting of a child’s dress, made of a rich orange-coloured material. The same coloured material that swathes flagpoles of Gurdwaras, Sikh temples of worship and congregating. Tucked into a sash, draped across the small dress, is a khanda or khanja, a double-edged sword that often symbolises the kirpan, one of the five K’s of the Sikh religion. Some may be tempted to view such potent symbolism as a form of literal referencing of ‘identity’, ‘religion’ ‘culture’ and so on. But such limited readings certainly do not befit an artist as sophisticated as Kaur.
Lynette Yiadom-Boayke (1977-)
In more recent years, Turner Prize nominee Lynette Yiadom-Boakye distinguished herself by painting the most enigmatic of portraits. She tended to take as her subjects Black people not drawn from life but instead taken – assembled, almost – from a variety of secondary material. The men and women presented in Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits are often decidedly dark-skinned and as such represent an almost over-determination of Blackness. In some portraits this is achieved by the visibility of the whites of the subjects’ eyes. In others, this sense of over-determination is achieved by the showing of the subjects’ teeth. There is also the use of the decidedly dark backgrounds or overall environments in which the artist locates her subjects. For a Black artist to be able to paint Black people and to draw positive attention from the art world is rare indeed. ■