Wednesday, October 12, 2011

50 Years of Black Art in the African Diaspora. A Brief Overview

By Adelaide Damoah

"The art history of the black diaspora is still an 'undiscovered' country," Kobena Mercer 2009.

Curator, writer and critic Eddie Chambers was instrumental in the promotion of the black British art scene during the 1980's. Chambers is well known for his opinions on the subject and for his definition of black art itself. Chambers once defined black art as,

"Art made by black people, for black people, which examines the black experience in its content."

Clearly, this definition would not fly in an era where so many artists consider themselves to be "post black."

During the 1960's , a new black consciousness evolved as a result of several major events which highlighted the black struggle. The Civil Rights movement was famously highlighted by the deaths of two of its most prominent figures, namely Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jnr. Young African Americans changed the way they were referred to from "Negro" to what the considered to be more assertive, "black" in an attempt to align themselves psychologically with what was occurring at the time.

The media reported on world events more than ever before prompting many artists to respond to this increased media coverage in a variety of ways. The Civil Rights Yearbook 1964 a satirical book by Jeff Donaldson, placed a spotlight on the power that the media had to affect public opinion on the subject of race.

The year 1966 saw the establishment of the Caribbean Artists Movement in the UK by John LaRose, Andrew Salkey and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. The movement was active between 1966 and 1971,and was created with the intention of encouraging the recognition of various forms of West Indian art in the UK and helping the artists to form an aesthetic informed by their cultural heritage rather than Western world aesthetics. The movement included artists Ronald Moody,Winston Branch and Errol Lloyd. Many other artists were inspired by the movement.

Many black artists of the 70's seemed to move towards abstraction. Abstraction provided a medium through which black artists shared their mood and ideals. Artist Jack Whitten acknowledged that being "black" showed itself in his work, without actually being able to define precisely what was black about it. Frank Bowling, a Guyanese born artist, trained in the UK became most known for his controversial essays on the subject of blackness in art, especially his 1971 essay, "Is Black Art about Colour."

Richard Powells, "Black Art A Cultural History," points to the fact that many artists were cautious of representing black individuals as nude until the sexual revolution of the 60's and 70's. Powells reasoned that this may have been due to well founded anxiety about potentially being accused of being either a pornographer or a racist. Historically speaking, many social scientists had assumed wrongly that black people were morally corrupt with various sexual pathologies. This may have contributed in a major way to this self censorship. From the the time of the sexual revolution onwards, various artists have used the black nude to conceptualise social and political themes. In 1971, Artist Dana C Chandler, used a chained erect black male penis, inside a jail cell against the backdrop of a mock American flag to illustrate his perception of the fears that black males had surrounding the black power movement. Faith Ringold examined the black female nude from a political and personal perspective through her paintings.

1980's was defined as the decade of art institutionalization in the African diaspora and was marked in the USA by the Smithsonian museum purchasing countless works by black artists.

The UK art scene was heavily influenced by a number of major social and political events including the Brixton riots of 1981. The BLK Art group was formed during this time in response to the fact that so many black artists found it extremely challenging to be accepted by the upper echelons of the art establishment despite achieving world wide success. Members included Keith Piper, Claudette Johnson, Donald Rodney and Marlene Smith. 1988 saw the launch of the landmark exhibition, "Black Art: Plotting the Course," curated by founding member Eddie Chambers. Chambers also worked with multimedia artist Sonia Boyce.

In 1981, the Hayward Gallery put on an important exhibition which contributed significantly to the institutionalisation of black art during the 80's entitled,"The Other Story Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain."

One of the most iconic black artists of the 80's, Jean-Michel Basquiat, often used words in his neo-expressionist work which incorporated his cultural heritage. One of his most famous works produced in 1981, the "Irony of the Negro Policeman" illustrated the control that wider white American Society had over African Americans at the time.

Curator Thelma Golden and artist Glen Ligon helped to define 90's black art by coining the term "post black." Golden defined a new artistic genre for the purpose of including marginalised black artists into the discourse on Western art history. Included in the group were black artists who actively refused to have their work defined by their race while simultaneously evaluating and probing complex issues of identity, race and racism through their work.

Golden went on to further examine the 90's in the context of mass marketing by stating in an essay that "Artists live in a world where their particular cultural specificity is marketed to the planet and sold back to them." Various artists produced work in response to mass produced marketing materials depicting racial and sexual stereotypes including African American artist Renee Cox.

British artist Chris Offilli used his work to critically examine black popular culture, using satire to ask serious questions about society, racism and the mass marketing of dumbed down images of blackness as was illustrated in his 1996 piece Afrodizzia.

There has been a significant shift in consciousness among numerous black artists from making work which was an obvious symbol of the black experience to more subtle, conceptual and multifactoral work. Many black artists today produce work which openly declares their cultural heritage while at the same time referencing and renouncing the historical injustices associated with it.

Yinka Shonibare uses his work in complicated and challenging ways to examine various notions of identity including what it means to be African, black, British and post modern. Shonibare is known for historical installations of mannequins dressed in so called African print fabrics.

Recent times have seen a number of black artists being awarded with prestigious career enhancing art prizes, helping to secure their place in art history and recognise their contribution to it. Such artists include Jacob Lawrence, Steve Mcqueen, Kerry James Marshall, Robert Colescott and Chris Offilli.

Black artists have historically used art to voice political and social concerns with little recognition from wider society. Today, they are getting more recognition than ever before and have moved on significantly from Eddie Chambers 1980's definition of black art, but in the words of Sonia Boyce...

"...Work produced is still regarded and reduced in totality to questions of ethnicity and cultural difference, outside the historical context of contemporary art. We are working towards a time when the work displayed in exhibitions is no longer cordoned off from it's contemporaries as a separate and marginal area of artistic production."

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