Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain

The Hayward Gallery will be presenting the work of twenty-four artists of Afro-Caribbean-Asian origin in November. It is one of the first major exhibitions of Black/Asian artists in Britain to be hosted by so prestigious a gallery. The event is bound to attract a great deal of attention due almost more to the status of the gallery itself than to the eminence of the assembled artists who number amongst the most distinguished of this century.

It is an opportunity to make visible work that has for decades been overshadowed by the dominance of white artists. Categories that have for some years served to contain and, by extension, constrain the work of Black practitioners, such as Black Art (with its implications of political radicalism) or Ethnic Art (associated with the conservative, the retrospective), have been rejected in favour of more dynamic structures which embody the sense of process that has so long been denied the Black artist. These have, perhaps of necessity, been set within the Eurocentric framework of modernism and post-modernism. The retrospective thus ‘starts’ with the work of Ronald Moody (1920s) and charts the changes through to the late 1980s.

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It is inevitable that, faced with a major exhibition of this nature, these works will constitute the definitive, monolithic category of ‘Black British Art’ for some years to come. Catalogues, press reviews and other documentation that span time and space ensure that these works will survive the exhibition on more than a purely personal level.

To embark upon a project of this nature is a fearsome task. One inescapably faces the wrath of individuals or communities who may feel that, as a result of the necessarily ruthless selection process, their work has not been sufficiently represented. It is also inevitable that one will face accusations of collaborating with and participating within an elitist structure (‘fine art’ and all that it entails). Indeed, as the project centres around living artists, the issue of selection will almost instinctively become charged with emotion.

Nevertheless, with reliance on sound judgement, a consciousness of the objectives of the project and the implications of selection, it is hoped that as many sections representative of a diverse body of people will be duly presented in a fashion to give credit to the whole wealth of black creativity, and this gesture is thus, in essence, political.

The avant-garde artist, Rasheed Araeen, who conceived of and initiated this project, has been one of the most powerful voices in the Black avant-garde in this country. He researched his material for a number of years and submitted the original proposal to the Arts Council in 1978. It took two more app roaches to the ACGB (interspersed with two unsuccessful submissions to the GLC) and eight more years eventually to secure the funds and support.

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In the postscript to the catalogue, Araeen states:

“My selection of the artists was based on multiple factors: historical, ideological, aesthetic, as well as personal. My main consideration has been that the work must engage with the idea of modernity (or post-modernity), with its historical formations as well as its socio-cultural constraints and contradictions.”

What is initially surprising, given the political convictions of Rasheed Araeen who has been a stalwart of the radical movements of the 70s, is that there is so little representation for women in the show. Out of twenty-four artists, only four women. These are Mona Hatoum, Lubaina Himid, Sonia Boyce and Kumiko Shimizu.

As practitioners, they represent some of the finest artists of the decade. Mona Hatoum is one of the foremost avant-garde artists in Britain, well known for her performance art, installations and experimental videos. Kumiko Shimizu, although perhaps less well known, has also worked within the avant-garde for a number of years and has been specially commissioned to create some work for the exterior of the gallery. Lubaina Himid and Sonia Boyce, both featured at the ICA exhibition State of the Art, have gradually built up formidable reputations for their work which explores the realms of female experience and cultural identity.

This indeed a good selection but not necessarily representative of the wide range of work that black women artists have created in the 80s. Some artists, such as Kim Lim and Veronica Ryan, declined to participate in this show, perhaps not wishing their work to be identified purely in terms of their ethnic origin or having their position threatened by the dangerous tag of ‘political’ or ‘exotic.’ However, the exclusion of women such as Sokari Douglas Camp, Sutapa Biswas, Rita Keegan, among others, suggests that the criteria for selection was not as strictly trussed to women’s contribution to modernism and post-modernism as the organisers imply.

Araeen is keenly aware and particularly sensitive about the issue of representation:

“The issue of gender representation remains unresolved here. We have included only four women artists, which is regrettable. But this must be understood in terms of sociohistorical factors, rather than through a continually repeated rhetoric of mythical ‘blackwomen artists’ who have been ignored. It seems that ‘black’ women artists in the 50s and 60s who came here from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean, returned home after they finished their education, unlike men artists who have stayed on. On the other hand, Black women artists who have recently emerged were either born or brought up here in Britain, and they had nowhere else to go but assert their presence here. They are an important part of our Story.”

Given the framework around which the show is constructed, these assumptions may indeed be correct, although, despite Araeen’s protestations to the contrary, this has never been conclusively proven. (I would also argue that long before the 50s, women from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia exerted continued presence in this country.)

Is the solution then to accept those boundaries and reinforce the notion of Black women as lacking in creativity, only breaking out of this limbo through the benevolent patronage of institutions which had so far served a limited selection of (white) men. Or is the solution to break down barriers that deny a proper consideration of the contribution of Black women to cultural history?

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In order to investigate the claim that women’s contribution to mainstream art effectively began in the 80s, I think it is necessary to consider the process by which the works are identified and to examine the criteria for selection.

The show was set up to challenge the notion of the absence of the Black artist from mainstream cultural history, to question values by which art is judged and to counter the ‘fascination with the exotic’ that Black art still holds.

“Racism is en-trenched in ideas and attitudes towards other cultures–no matter how fascinated they (Westerners) are with the work, it is considered outside history.” (Araeen)

The format of the exhibition itself will no doubt contribute to locating this work ‘inside’ history. It shows a progression of concerns (from early works exploring style and representation, through to the radicalism of the 70s, the directly confrontational work of the 80s and the later concern with reclaiming identity) which proposes an intellectual and cultural development which may force the viewer into reassessing any static or exotic view of Black art.

Araeen relies on the assumption that at any given time there are a number of art centres which dominate art production and, in this era, these are inescapably identified by Western art practice. Thus the notion of difference within Black art practices is explored superficially. The focus of the exhibition is on those artists working within those restricted parameters defined by the West and thus excludes ‘indigenous art’, ‘craft’ (even photography) which involves, (not exclusively), women’s work and the work of the black nations and communities.

Modernism and post-modernism are not universals–they are artificial constructs that many use to categorise their ideas and undermine the validity of other types of practice. These categories and their meanings can be broken down by the assimilation of other work/ideas.

Araeen states:

“… if prevailing artistic criteria are based on the sensibilities of a white society–which is no longer exclusively white but multi-racial, then these criteria must be challenged and changed.”

However, rather than directly challenging the legitimacy of the press, the art market and other institutions which formulate criteria, Araeen endorses an elitist view of art practice; not explicitly (he acknowledges the value of indigenous art and ‘craft’)–but implicitly, by exclusion. Indeed, Araeen endorses a whole range of strategies which legitimate and reinforce not only the status of his own art practice, but the hierarchy which embodies it.

Undoubtably, the project has been frustrated by the fact that parameters have already been defined. Rejecting them is a long and sometimes unsuccessful process. One can choose whether to work within or outside them. Major exhibitions are, however, not only based on personal choice but a consideration of potential sponsorship, audience, press coverage and so on. Araeen is an artist of considerable intelligence, integrity and vision and, for his purposes, his choice of strategy is valid. His means of justifying his exclusion of women is, however, not.

It may not be possible to ascertain through the traditional avenues of research which Black women artists existed and the extent of their work. The notion of ‘professionalism’ might have had to undergo reconsideration, linking it less to career and the market than to commitment or skill.

Nevertheless, there is a basic contradiction faced by all those who delve into these areas.

Through the channels of written, aural and visual information (press, catalogues, slides or films, recordings, interviews) the researcher can paste together an idea of the history of a period or of the work of an artist. These are the channels to which blacks have traditionally been little access. Consequently, the search for ‘famous’ Black artists can be very frustrating. Some would argue that the artists who do surface through this method of research conform to the stereotypical view of Black artists. And yet, some do not.

The problems encountered in the search for prominent Black artists are magnified in the case of women.

Firstly, one is confronted with the “socio-historical” factors to which Araeen make reference ie. access to institutions such as art academies, art galleries, the press–traditionally elitist, conservative, proscriptive. This is coupled with the familiar problems which all women face in the employment arena.

Secondly, it rests on the assumption that, having gained access to exhibition space, the interest of the press will be aroused. An exhibition of seventeen Black women artists in Brixton Gallery in 1985 received three reviews.

If Black women exhibit together, it seems like a political statement of the most radical kind–people shun the exhibition as divisive and separatist. If Black women exhibit with whites, their work is seen as naturally inferior. They have had less access to the institutions in which they would serve their apprenticeship, less sense of the cultural baggage of British art. They are disadvantaged on both accounts.

If Araeen’s purpose is to challenge the “supremacy of the Western/ white male artist in the paradigm of modernism”, only half of the equation will have been served. It is an area of such hot debate that Birkbeck College (University of London) will be hosting a conference devoted almost exclusively to this issue in the light of the Hayward exhibition.

On the other hand, Araeen has much to be proud of. The amount of effort and enthusiasm that he has devoted to the project is considerable and cannot be overlooked. There is absolutely no doubt that his show will be one of the most stunning of the decade. It is a visually exciting, ambitious exhibition which will excite those both familiar and unfamiliar with the work.

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