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Black British Artists Who Should Be Better Known

Eddie Chambers looks at five Black British artists representing the fascinating sweep of a neglected art history.

Traditionally, the history of British Art has often overlooked Black artists, but Eddie Chambers’ recently released book, “Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s,” challenges this trend.

The book, launched this week, makes a comprehensive effort to incorporate them into the narrative of British art history.

Covering a broad range of artists, it begins with the pioneering Caribbean-born artists of the mid-20th century. It extends to the current generation, some of whom have received recognition from the art establishment.

The mentioned artists – Winston Branch, Denzil Forrester, Donald Rodney, Permindar Kaur, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – glimpse the diverse practices discussed in the book.

These artists collectively span around 60 years of a historically neglected chapter in British art.

Winston Branch (1947-)

Winston Branch
Winston Branch, West Indian, 1973, oil on canvas, 105 x 90.2 cm, Rugby Art Gallery and Museum Art Collections © Winston Branch

Originally from St. Lucia, it is often linked with non-figurative painting, but his piece “West Indian” deviates from this trend.

Created in 1973, the painting features a casually dressed Caribbean man sporting a distinctive pink bobble hat.

The subject seamlessly blends into a vibrant array of colors and shapes, seemingly transitioning from one decorated room to another with even more flamboyant decor.

Branch’s portrayal exudes a strong sense of personality, capturing the spirit, fashion, visual culture, and sensibilities of the early 1970s.

Despite his work generally being associated with non-figurative art, “West Indian” is a notable exception in his oeuvre.

Denzil Forrester (1956-)

Denzil Forrester
Denzil Forrester, Police in Blues Club, 1985, oil on canvas, 214 x 365 cm © Denzil

A decade later, the narratives shifted, and Denzil Forrester, born in Grenada, captured a different aspect of societal dynamics.

His paintings portrayed the tension and me

nace associated with intrusive and unwelcome policing, especially in the context of how society perceived Black cultural expressions, particularly those influenced by Rastafarianism.

In his work “Police in Blues Club” (1985), Forrester depicted a lively club scene with dancing revelers and energetic youth.

However, the unsettling elements of the painting emerged through the presence of two motionless police officers positioned discreetly towards the back of the venue.

Silent and unapologetic, they conducted surveillance, embodying a sense of menace within the artwork.

This shift in narrative reflects Forrester’s exploration of the complex relationships between Black cultural expressions and the societal scrutiny and policing they often faced during that period.

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Donald Rodney (1961-1998)

Donald Rodney
Donald Rodney, Doublethink, 1992, sporting trophies, plus text, in glazed,
mirrored and lit display, from Trophies of Empire, Arnolfini, Bristol, 21 November
1992 – 19 January 1993, private collection © Estate of Donald Rodney

In the early 1990s, Birmingham-born artist Donald Rodney from a new generation creatively embraced the concept of found objects.

Rodney innovatively borrowed and assembled a multitude of inexpensive sports trophies, which he then exhibited.

Rodney adorned trophies with labels symbolizing “half truths and [half] lies,” arranging them cleverly in glass cabinets or on shelves.

Infused with irony, Rodney conveyed how dominant society distorted Black identities through media.

Utilizing trophies, Rodney aimed to spotlight the dual aspects of sporting prowess—economic liberation and societal confinement for Black individuals.

“A black sportsman can receive cheers of appreciation and taunts of racial abuse,” Rodney pointed out, addressing the complex experiences of Black individuals in society.

Permindar Kaur

Permindar Kaur
Permindar Kaur, Innocence, 1993, fabric and iron 60 x 72 cm, fabric and iron,
photo by Peter Lundh, © Permindar Kaur

Permindar Kaur, hailing from Nottingham, emerged as a distinctive artistic voice in the 1990s.

“Innocence,” one of Kaur’s acclaimed works, features a child’s dress in rich orange material, resembling Gurdwara flagpoles.

The dress is adorned with a sash holding a khanda, symbolizing the kirpan in Sikhism.

Interpreting the symbolism as mere references to ‘identity,’ ‘religion,’ or ‘culture’ falls short of capturing Kaur’s sophisticated artistry.

Lynette Yiadom-Boayke (1977-)

black artists
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Any Number of Preoccupations, 2010, oil on canvas,
160.02 x 200.66 cm, © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, courtesy of the artist, Jack
Shainman Gallery, New York, and Corvi-Mora, London

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, a nominee for the Turner Prize, has distinguished herself by creating enigmatic portraits in recent years.

Her subjects, Black individuals, are not painted from life but assembled from various secondary materials.

The portraits often feature dark-skinned men and women, emphasizing an almost over-determination of Blackness.

This can be conveyed by subjects’ eyes being visible or their teeth showing in certain portraits.

Yiadom-Boakye also employs dark backgrounds or environments, enhancing the emphasis on Blackness.

Notably, a Black artist portraying Black subjects and gaining positive attention in art is rare.

Eddie Chambers, the author of “Black Artists in British Art,” is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas, Austin, USA. Specializing in the art history of the African Diaspora, he obtained his Ph.D. from Goldsmith’s College, University of London.

From 2003 to 2009, he held the position of Visiting Professor in Art History at Emory University, Atlanta.

Since the early 1980s, Chambers has actively organized and curated artists’ exhibitions in various countries, including Britain, the US, Australia, and Jamaica. His work reflects a commitment to showcasing and promoting the contributions of Black artists in the global art scene.

Nishan Dahal
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