Exhibition: Art for Change – Black British Artists & Activism in the 1980s

The House that Jack Built by Donald Rodney (© the Estate of Donald Rodney), flanked by Untitled, 1983, and And I have my own business, 1982, by Claudette Johnson (© the artist) in the 2011 BLK Art Group exhibition in the Graves Gallery

David A Bailey, Eddie Chambers, Armet Francis, Claudette Johnson, Tam Joseph, Keith Piper, Donald Rodney, Marlene Smith.

With the Graves Gallery temporarily closed we want to make sure you can continue to enjoy highlights from the city’s visual art collection at home. This first online exhibition, celebrating Black History Month, takes its inspiration from a series of works you would usually be able to see on display in the gallery, Donald Rodney’s Britannia Hospital 3 (1988), Marlene Smith’s Art History (1987) and Tam Joseph’s School Report (1983). These powerful works are part of one of the most significant aspects of Sheffield’s art collection; a key grouping of works by Black British artists practicing in the 1980s who highlighted and challenged the racism and discrimination experienced by black people.

The 1980s saw the coming of age of a generation of young black Britons whose parents had migrated to the UK during the 1950s and 1960s to help rebuild the country after the Second World War. Discrimination and racism against minority communities including the black community was common in the preceding decades, but by the 1980s it had accelerated. The Government under Margaret Thatcher took a hard line anti-immigration stance, the National Front party was at the height of its popularity and police discrimination against black people was widespread.

During the 1980s work by black artists was virtually invisible in Britain; it wasn’t taught at art school and was rarely shown in galleries. It was in this challenging context that the Blk Art Group emerged, part of a wider cultural scene that included many significant black artists, writers and musicians who individually, and sometimes collectively, sought to challenge the dominant historical and visual narratives.

Created against a backdrop of racial tension and injustice, the works showcased here, whilst realised through distinct and markedly differing approaches, are each compelling explorations of identity and potent embodiments of protest. Each foregrounds both the importance and the reality of the contemporary black British experiences that were so often overlooked.

Sheffield held several important exhibitions of black British artists’ work during the 1980s and as a result the city is fortunate enough to have these significant pieces in the collection. In 2011 we highlighted some of these key works in an exhibition focussing on the emergence and impact of the Blk Art Group, and today they continue to form a critical aspect of the current displays at the Graves Gallery. Now, as systemic racism in our society is being challenged with new vigour and the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement becomes evermore apparent, these works are as relevant and vital as the day they were made and have lost none of their power.

 

Jah Bones, 1984-5 David A Bailey photograph on paper

Jah Bones,1984-5
David A Bailey
photograph on paper

'My idea of the image is that it represents an image of Black people that challenges / confronts the stereotypical imagery of Black people especially Rastas. For you rarely see an image of a Rasta with their children.' David A Bailey

This photograph is part of a series of black and white portraits by David A Bailey, which was shown in an exhibition called Appropriation and Control: A photographic exploration of Black Images in 1985. Through his work Bailey illustrates the parallels between the process of creating a photographic image, such as selecting and fragmenting, and the way black culture has been exploited and manipulated through colonialism.

Purchased, 1986

Image: David A Bailey, Jah Bones, 1984-5, © David A Bailey, 2020

 

How Much Longer You Bastards, 1983 Eddie Chambers mixed media on board

How Much Longer You Bastards, 1983
Eddie Chambers
mixed media on board

‘The work of the black artist should be seen as having specific positive functions: a tool to assist us in our struggle for liberation, both at home and abroad, as opposed to simply reflecting the moral bankruptcy of modern times….’ Eddie Chambers

Eddie Chambers often used images from the media in his work. This work includes a well-known photograph of a dead child being carried. The boy, Hector Pieterson, was shot at a school protest in Soweto during the uprising in South Africa in 1976. The events in Soweto illustrated the inhumanity and brutality of the apartheid system.

In Britain, Barclays Bank became a symbol of South African apartheid because of its involvement there. There were widespread protests in the 1980s aimed at companies with South African links. The Conservative government at the time was also criticised for its refusal to impose economic sanctions.

Purchased, 1984

Image: Eddie Chambers, How Much Longer You Bastards, 1983, © Eddie Chambers, 2020

 

Untitled, 1983 Claudette Johnson gouache and pastel on paper

Untitled, 1983
Claudette Johnson
gouache and pastel on paper

‘The black woman experiences oppression on the grounds of her sex, sexuality and race, there is not yet a word that properly describes the specific and deliberate nature of this oppression.’ Claudette Johnson

Claudette Johnson’s work deals with the role of black women in society. During the 1980s, and still today, black women face both racism and sexism. The women Johnson presents are monolithic figures. They are bold and powerful women who look out from the work and hold the viewer’s gaze.

Purchased, 1985

Image: Claudette Johnson, Untitled, 1983, © Claudette Johnson, 2020

And I have my own business, 1982 Claudette Johnson gouache, pastel and mixed media on paper

And I have my own business, 1982
Claudette Johnson
gouache, pastel and mixed media on paper

'The black women in my drawings are monoliths… They are women who have been close to me all my life, - with different stories. They are not objects.' Claudette Johnson

Claudette Johnson’s work derives from her own experience of being a black woman in Britain. It responds to the lack of visibility or negative portrayals of black women. Johnson does not objectify her subjects. The works are occasionally abstracted, such as the figure here. She presents strong, dignified figures against sparsely decorated or plain backgrounds, so that the focus remains on the women portrayed.

Purchased, 1985

Image: Claudette Johnson, And I have my own business, 1982, © Claudette Johnson, 2020

 

UK School Report, 1983 Tam Joseph acrylic on canvas

UK School Report, 1983
Tam Joseph
acrylic on canvas

These three portraits document the path of a black youth through the education system in Britain. It highlights the difficult experiences that young black children can face through their school years by being prejudicially labelled at an early age. The first image in the series sees a young person labelled as ‘Good at Sports’, articulating an inherent level of racism in the suggestion that Black people are better at physical activities than mental ones. The series goes on to powerfully evoke the insidious and escalating nature of such harmful prejudices.

Tam Joseph is represented by Felix & Spear Gallery, London and you can see his solo exhibition ‘Evolution’ at the gallery until 1 November 2020. 

Purchased, 1984

Image: Tam Joseph, UK School Report, 1983, © Tam Joseph, 2020

 

Spirit of the Carnival, 1988 Tam Joseph screen print on paper

Spirit of the Carnival, 1988
Tam Joseph
screen print on paper

Spirit of the Carnival refers to the ever-increasing police presence at Notting Hill Carnival and was inspired by Tam Joseph’s experience of the over zealous policing of the Carnival in 1976. A masked performer in a raffia costume is surrounded by an advancing line of police officers with riot shields and a snarling dog. The performer continues his energetic dance despite being encircled. Spirit of the Carnival can be seen as both a celebration of Black cultural tradition and a symbol of political resistance and resilience.

Purchased, 1988

Image: Tam Joseph, Spirit of the Carnival, 1988, © Tam Joseph, 2020

 

Black Assassin Saints, 1982 Keith Piper poster paint and screenprint on cotton duck

Black Assassin Saints, 1982
Keith Piper
poster paint and screenprint on cotton duck

'… it is here in Britain that we face a prime minister almost uniquely forthright in her refusal to impose sanctions against apartheid, uniquely dismissive of international opinion, uniquely racist in her rhetoric…’ Keith Piper

Black Assassin Saints refers to apartheid in South Africa during the early 1980s. Several British companies (some of which are named in the work) had subsidiaries there and they came under mounting pressure from the British public to withdraw. Their activity provided financial support for the South African government, whose practices were met with widespread condemnation for their racism and violence. Many felt this involvement was unacceptable as it legitimised the brutal regime. For many in Britain apartheid confirmed the marginalised status of black people in certain parts of the world.

Purchased, 1985

Image: Keith Piper, Black Assassin Saints, 1982, © Keith Piper, 2020

 

Seven Rages of Man, 1984-2018 Keith Piper mixed media

Seven Rages of Man, 1984-2018
Keith Piper
mixed media

This is a critical reimagining of a work Keith Piper first created in 1984. The work is in seven parts and takes its title from Shakespeare’s reference to the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ in As You Like It and also from William Mulready’s 1838 painting. The work imagines seven (r)ages through which the black dispersed population has passed, but also imagines the future to come. The work begins with pre-colonial Africa and follows a traumatic and then redemptive path. It ends with a utopian, hopeful suggestion of an Africa free and united under socialism.

On loan from the artist

Image: Keith Piper, Seven Rages of Man, 1984-2018, © Keith Piper, 2020

 

The Body Politic, 1983 Keith Piper mixed media, acrylic and card on canvas

The Body Politic, 1983
Keith Piper
mixed media, acrylic and card on canvas

‘Let us raise our consciousness and stimulate debate as to how most effectively we can conduct our struggle, inspire organised self defence, expose and oppose our enemies and seize justice.' Keith Piper

Keith Piper often combines image and text in his work during this period. The Body Politic is one of several works which explores power relationships and the objectification of bodies. The figures, one black and male, one white and female, are presented naked and without heads. The text that accompanies each figure mirrors the other, describing notions around fear and desire.

On loan from the artist

Image: Keith Piper, The Body Politic, 1983, © Keith Piper, 2020

Britannia Hospital 2, 1988 Donald Rodney oil pastel on x-ray

Britannia Hospital 2, 1988
Donald Rodney
oil pastel on x-ray

‘I try to indicate a type of unease (or dis-ease) with the order of things.’ Donald Rodney

This is one of a series of works Rodney created using x-rays. He was diagnosed with sickle cell anaemia, a disease that disproportionally affects black people, and from the late 1980s his health declined. Rodney used x-rays to symbolise looking beneath the surface to examine the social and political ills in British society.

In this piece, a fictionalised hospital became a metaphor for a society deeply affected by racism, police brutality and apartheid. Rodney read newspapers obsessively and used many media images in his work, such as this image of a mourning woman.

Purchased, 1989/90

Image: Donald Rodney, Britannia Hospital 2, 1988, © The Estate of Donald Rodney, 2020

 

Britannia Hospital 3, 1988 Donald Rodney oil pastel on x-ray

Britannia Hospital 3, 1988
Donald Rodney
oil pastel on x-ray

'When politicians talk of black people in this country, they always talk of us…as diseases within the body culture of Britain.' Donald Rodney

This work, which includes an image of a Special Patrol Group policeman from the Brixton riots and references Frida Kahlo's 'The Broken Column (self portrait)', examines the diseases of racism, injustice and brutality on contemporary society.

This is one of three works in which Rodney explored the idea of Britain as a hospital. Rodney made extensive use of x-rays from the late 1980s, when he himself was increasingly confined to hospital. He wanted to 'look beneath the surface of our lives, see how we are, how the structures of society has made us what we are'.

Presented by the artist, 1989/90

Image: Donald Rodney, Britannia Hospital 3, 1988, © The Estate of Donald Rodney, 2020

The House that Jack Built, 1987

The House that Jack Built, 1987
Donald Rodney
mixed media

'…with x-rays you're looking beneath the surface to see what the structure of things really are.' Donald Rodney

In this work Donald Rodney once again uses x-rays as a metaphor for looking below the surface to discover how systems operate. The figure in this work is a self-portrait of Rodney and the x-ray spine and nails refer to the increasing pain that sickle-cell anaemia was causing him.

It also refers to the oppression of black people over the centuries. Members of the Blk Art Group were influenced by the Black Power Movement and black struggle in America and many references to this, such as nooses representing lynching, appear in their work.

On loan from the Estate of Donald Rodney

Image: Donald Rodney, The House that Jack Built, 1987, © The Estate of Donald Rodney, 2020

 

Art History, 1987 Marlene Smith plastic flowers, vase, framed images

Art History, 1987
Marlene Smith
plastic flowers, vase, framed images

'As black women artists our work revolves around and evolves out of an experience which is our own.' Marlene Smith

Marlene Smith’s work addresses the experience of being a black woman in Britain. This piece includes images of significant black women artists who have been overlooked by art history. It raises questions about the traditional canon of art history, which praises and promotes Western white male artists at the exclusion of others. The women in this work are Magdalene Odundo, photographed by Ingrid Pollard; Brenda Agard, Simone Alexander and Edmonia Lewis.

Purchased, 2016

Image: Marlene Smith, Art History, 1987, © Marlene Smith, 2020

 

Armet Francis, Jamaica, 1980, © Armet Francis, 2020

Armet Francis, New York, 1981, © Armet Francis, 2020

The Black Triangle Series, 1969-81
Armet Francis
gelatin silver print

'It is this simple trade relationship that moulded the lives and destinies of millions of people…Even today its effects are being felt, as the descendants from the original travellers of the middle passage come to terms with the legacies of the triangular relationship.' Armet Francis

The Black Triangle is a series of photographs by Armet Francis taken over a 14-year period in which he retraced the journey from Africa to the Caribbean his ancestors were subjected to when they were forced into slavery during the period of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The sailing route, known as the Triangular Trade, was used by British slave traders and encompassed Africa, Europe and the Americas. Here we can see two photographs from this series, Jamaica, 1980 and New York, 1981.

Purchased, 1987

Image: Armet Francis, Jamaica, 1980, © Armet Francis, 2020
Image: Armet Francis, New York, 1981, © Armet Francis, 2020