Lisa Anderson, ‘Outside of the frame: Mobilising emerging Black British contemporary visual art practice in the digital age’

As an arts establishment outsider the context that art, especially visual and performing arts, has provided me is a space from which I can fulfil my intellectual and creative self-expression, where I can affirm my personal experiences and values, a medium through which I can make sense of my connectedness to the world.

So, in the wake of the groundswell of interest in art from the African Diaspora, I’ve found myself questioning: which British galleries champion emerging contemporary Black British arts practice, which exhibitions include voices from this fragmented, yet influential British arts constituency? Which British or International art fairs seek out and celebrate these artists, their perspective, their existence/persistence?

From my standpoint, and in view of the limited visibility of emerging Black British artists that my questions point to, I propose that it’s urgent to attempt to identify and make sense of the current moment in contemporary Black British art practice, in spite of the obstacles that exist.

In my pursuit to frame the current landscape of emerging contemporary Black British visual arts, I’ve turned to the Internet and have discovered a wealth of fragmented individual and collective voices. 20 to 30 years on from the height of the Black Art there are thankfully a number of projects and initiatives in place to ensure that the history of that effort remains visible and I’m determined to ensure that 20 – 30 years on from now, in spite of an unclear narrative there is an accessible, coherent digital knowledge base that reflects the current moment.In June 2015, I bought the domain www.blackbritishart.com out of frustration and determination to develop a championing, documenting online platform for contemporary emerging Black British Art. In the same breath, I also started an Instagram page (https://instagram.com/blackbritishart/) and a Twitter account (https://twitter.com/blackbritishart).

The Instagram page in particular has enabled me to pursue a curatorial exploration of current practice as it appears online, which has revealed what I propose are distinctive characteristics and survival modalities reflective of this current moment in emerging Black British contemporary visual arts practice:

  • an individualised entrepreneurial/hustle approach to engaging with audiences and selling work,
  • self-organised, thinly connected collectives/individuals
  • a distrusting, anti- arts-establishment mentality
  • and the complete absence of any unifying or political narrative in response to issues that distinctly affect elements of Black Britain: austerity, criminalisation of the black subject, gentrification in urban areas, the refugee crisis, crisis in mental health care and youth unemployment.

In my paper presentation I would like to explore the Internet as a resource and site for framing emerging contemporary Black British Arts practice. I will introduce the audience to collectives and individuals in Britain they may not be aware of through a presentation that provides an analysis of the digital landscape of arts presentation.

Mora Beauchamp-Byrd, ‘The Transatlantic Afterlife of Transforming the Crown: Recent Curatorial Practice and Black British Art’

In the early to mid-1990s, I began organizing a major survey exhibition entitled Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966-1996. Developed during my tenure as Curator at The Caribbean Cultural Center in New York, Crown included the work of over 50 artists, and was largely developed to introduce a North American audience to late twentieth-century “Black British” art. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue and public programming reflected a particularly 1990s-styled curatorial strategy that reflected a broad range of scholarly approaches, informed by my interest in global modernisms and in Black Atlantic, diaspora, feminist, postmodernist and queer studies. Transforming the Crown was on view at three distinct NYC venues: the Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Caribbean Cultural Center and The Studio Museum in Harlem from October of 1997 through March of 1998, and the exhibition represents the first (and only) large-scale, US-organized survey of Black British art. Crown was accompanied by an expansive series of public programming, including a film series introduced by Isaac Julien, May Joseph and others, and a substantial exhibition catalogue that included my introductory essay and additional texts by Eddie Chambers, Okwui Enwezor, Kobena Mercer, Gilane Tawadros, Anne Walmsley, Deborah Willis and Judith Wilson. The show, and exhibition, received a wealth of critical attention that was largely positive but also included a more generalized critique of what was called “Black art shows.”

Nearly twenty years later, increasing interest in “Black British Art” may be evinced by North American courses in Black British art and culture; “mainstream” visibility of selected artists; the inclusion of Black British artists in group exhibitions of “Contemporary African Art” or “Global Caribbean” art; the Tate Gallery’s 2012 re-staging of Lubaina Himid’s seminal Thin Black Line exhibition of women artists; and conferences such as Duke University’s Shades of Black: Assembling the Eighties, A Transatlantic Dialogue on Afro-Asian Arts in Post-War Britain (2001) and a 2008 Clark Art Institute symposium entitled “Artistic Crossings of the Black Atlantic.” My lecture will briefly survey these global, Black British Art-focused initiatives by addressing the following questions:

How has “Black British Art” been globally defined, and employed, in late 20th and early 21st-century curatorial practice?

What role has Black British Art played in the increasing establishment of “Art of the African Diaspora” faculty positions in US-based Art History departments? 

As part of a wave of transatlantic projects that examined “the Black Atlantic” and included the participation of both US and British-based scholars, what has “Transforming the Crown” contributed to the field, and how has the exhibition catalogue continued to generate, and/or solidify, interest in Black British Art? 

In terms of the critical reception of survey shows like “Transforming the Crown,” how do they differ from, for example, a survey exhibition like the Armory Show in 1913 New York?

Alice Correia, ‘Adventures Close to Home: Art and Contested Belongings in the 1980s’

In 1968 the politician Enoch Powell utilised a narrative of the ordinary English house on an ordinary English street to incite racial discrimination. Rather than being a site of safety and security, the home became a battlefield. Taking its title from Donald Rodney and Keith Piper’s joint exhibition at the Pentonville Gallery in 1987, this paper will consider the work of a number of artists active in the mid-1980s and will assess how each engaged with ideas of house, home, and homeland from the position of a marginalised diaspora. Although using different media, ranging from painting, sculpture and collage, artists including Rodney, Piper, Marlene Smith, Allan de Souza and Said Adrus each made work in response to acts of violence perpetrated against, and within, the homes of Black and Asian people, recounting the terrors of not being at home – of not being safe, welcome or wanted, in one’s homeland. Considering these artworks through their respective contemporaneous events and recent scholarship on ‘home’, this paper will examine how the notion of the house as home, as haven, sanctuary or retreat, was upturned in the 1980s. However, rather than simply see the house as simply a place of insecurity this paper will conclude with a consideration of Rodney’s last works, including a miniature house made of his own skin, In the House of My Father, 1997. Through an engagement with alternative narratives of home and in baring witness to atrocities at home, I will suggest that over the course of his career the house was transformed in Rodney’s work from a site of terror to one of emancipatory resistance.

Anjalie Dalal-Clayton, Keith Piper: From Legacy Media to the Digital Revolution and the Analogue Revival

As one of the founding members of the BLK Art Group, the artist Keith Piper is synonymous with the Black Arts Movement in Britain, his work playing a pivotal role in bringing attention to the existence of a generation of British‐born artists of African, Caribbean and Asian descent. Yet the critical contexts and dialogues within and against which his work is often framed ‐ namely those of race, representation and identity politics – serves to ring‐fence his contribution to art in terms of ethnicity and difference, arguably preventing his artworks and practice from entering popular perceptions of British and contemporary art. How might we understand and reconceive his work if we resist the temptation to revert to these problematic yet entrenched frameworks? How might such a resistance take place?

One strategy is to focus on medium. In this monographic paper, Piper’s use of what we may now describe as legacy media or pre-digital technologies is considered, with specific reference to two multimedia installations: ‘The Seven Rages of Man’ (1984) and ‘The Trophies of Empire’ (1985). The purpose of this is to elucidate some of the informing contexts for his practice that are only cursorily referenced in published appraisals of his work and therefore open up some alternative possibilities for positioning him amongst the artistic developments of the mid to late twentieth century. The paper charts some of the key moments in the development of his practice in terms of his adoption of early, non-artistic media, including the photocopier and slide-tape projection, and examines how Piper merged his use of these older technologies with the first forms of digital technology that became available to artists at the start of the 1990s.

Based on original research involving a recent interview with Piper, this paper has taken the artist’s own assertions about his influences, chosen media and approach to form as a route through which to position his work and to push forward an understanding of his practice beyond contexts of ethnicity, identity and difference.

Yassmin Foster, ‘The Black Dancing Body versus the Black Dance Form’

This paper will highlight and discuss the ability to recognise black dance, even when, it is not being performed by a “Black” dancing body. Momentarily suspending the concept of blackness. Questioning not what we know, but instead how we know it. We will interrogate black dance practice through (LMA) Laban Movement Analysis, to illuminate the thick description of a black dance form, to address the question of value, through science and technology.

‘The significance of the inaugural National Black Art Convention, which was held at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 1982, as the first visible sign of an emerging Black Arts Movement’ (Bailey, Baucom and Boyce, xxiii: 2005), was a distinct action towards the edification of black artists making work. Cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall adds, that artists from places historically marginalised ‘from the centres of power and authority…are driven by the struggles of peoples… To resist exclusion, reverse the historical gaze, come into visibility and open up a “third space” (between the weight of an unreconstructed tradition and the impetus of mindless modernism) in cultural representation’ (Hall, 2005: 2). In a sense, the long-standing problem is that it is easier to discriminate against an ambiguous id/entity, that which the Black identity is. Which is further compounded by its inherent disposition, created on the pillars of modernism. It has proven a time-honoured difficulty for European societies to consider ‘art’ attached to the black race as such.

Davinia Gregory, ‘The Drum Arts Centre: Blackness vs. inter culture after the Black Arts Movement’

The Drum arts centre was established in Birmingham, arguably the home of cultural studies, in 1995. It was part of a series of ventures, endorsed by Birmingham’s City Council, intended to achieve both social and economic gains for the city. It was created to provide an inclusive creative space for African, Caribbean and South Asian communities. Additionally, it was intended as an economically regenerative project when, in the wake of the early 90s recession, many city councils were pump-priming private sector investment using cultural projects.

In 2015, a greater number of communities comprise Birmingham’s population, creating a super-diversity unplanned for in 1995. The popular national approach to diversity and migration has changed, and the Drum has become a contested space. Rather than remaining a firmly Black Minority Ethnic space it has rebranded itself intercultural and this has become controversial among BME community leaders.

This paper maps a social history of multicultural Birmingham through The Drum and is the first from a PhD project partly concerned with creating and digitising the cultural space’s archive of ephemera. It examines The Drum as part of the legacy of the 1980s and the Birmingham incarnation of the Black Arts Movement. It also interrogates the debates surrounding interculturalism and post-race in the UK context. If The Drum and its relationship to blackness are subjects of ongoing controversy, what does this say about the legacy of the 1980s moment in 2015 Birmingham, and the challenges of meeting demands for funding?

Valda Jackson, ‘Always Work in Progress’

This presentation will be comprised of a video rooted in narrative prose, short stories narrated over a series of images of my studio art – drawings, paintings and sculptures – created over a period of thirty years.

It is an emotional journey

Made up of historical truths, fancies, desires, and sometimes dreams and wishes but not

untruths. And never lies.

Roshini Kempadoo, ‘The “burden” of photography: memory and history in photography, autographs and black portraits’

John Tagg’s publication The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (1988), Kellie Jone’s article in Artforum entitled In Their Own Image (1990) and David A. Bailey and Stuart Hall’s edition of the Ten.8 International photographic journal Critical Decade: Black British Photography in the 80s (1992) have resonated as conceptual terms that continue to shape and inform the telling of black photographic history and their conservation. Work by black1 practitioners and critics (this paper will focus on photographic works, archives and writings during 1980s and 1990s) explored the particularities of the metaphorical “weight” of photography as a medium that included: indicating the limits and power of documentary realism (Hall’s reflections on the Post-War black settlement photojournalism (1984)); eschewing and intervening in the persistence of anthropological photography of the racialised other (including work by Zarina Bhimji and Faisal Abdu’Allah (1995) and this author (1992)); creating photographic autobiographies (such as Sunil Gupta (1988) and the group exhibition by Autograph ABP Autoportraits (1989); and determining an urgency to ‘re-image’ an aesthetically different narrative of ourselves as black British diasporic subjects in Thatcher’s Britain (work by Mitra Tabrizian (1986-87) and Ingrid Pollard (1989) amongst others as examples).

This paper is a result of a long-term research project and that extends the research of my forthcoming monograph Creole in the Archive: Imagery, Presence and Location of the Caribbean figure. Inherent to this period of photographic history is the way in which we can conceive of history and memory as instrumental to writing, creating works and creating “archives.” The author posits the notion of Glissant’s writings on the Poetic of Relations (1997) as a critical space from which to explore historical narratives and memory as evoked through photography (and includes screen-based media conceived as postcolonial ‘memory works’). It is through the poetic and imaginative practice of taking, creating and collecting photographs and its capacity to ‘trouble’ relationships between visualising subjectivities, remembering and narrating wider histories that are at stake here. Kempadoo will address the extent to which cultural activism of workshops, agencies, events and exhibitions of this period were integral to the public visibility and archival practices of the work. This paper the “burden” of photography is framed through the present for its agency and continued connectivity to the present digitally, hypervisualised networked environment.

Ella S. Mills, Title TBC

Jane Rhodes, ‘The Visual Culture of Black Power Across the Black Atlantic’

The Black Power movements that emerged in the U. S. and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s were shaped by transnational forces and international theories of liberation and revolution. The history of black American resistance to racism and discrimination influenced black British communities in the post-war period. John Solomos and Les Back noted that “the historical legacy of the Civil Rights movement and Black Power has cast a long shadow over the development of new forms of political mobilization among minorities in advanced industrial societies.”[1] At the same time, the anti-colonial victories in Africa and the Caribbean, and the Pan-African activism based in Britain helped to shape the black freedom struggle in the U. S. This was a vibrant period of interaction and exchange; Malcolm X and Stokley Carmichael, visited Britain in their quest for solidarity with black British and pan-African activists while organizers like Obi Egbuna spent time in the U. S. to form alliances with black power groups. Egbuna, like his American counterparts, recognized the linked fate of black subjects, and argued that black power was not a purely American phenomenon: “The enemy of the black man in North America is the same as the enemy of the black man in southern Africa, South America, and Asia . . . it is therefore absurd to suggest that a lack power organization is an anachronism in a white country like Britain . . . “[2]

Visual culture was central to Black Power activism, and served as an anchor of the Black Arts Movement on both sides of the Atlantic. Art was deemed a weapon; the black freedom struggle was, in part, a struggled over representation. Artist-activists produced iconography and images that made visible the ideals of Black Power, particularly their attention to African diasporic histories, pride in black identity, a celebration of the black body, and a sense of unity among black subjects. Art inspired multiple publics, offered means of identification and community building, and created visual symbols representing social and political interests. In the U. S., cultural nationalists like Maulana Karenga argued that art must be for the masses and must serve a political function. Graphic artist Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party declared that “revolutionary art . . . gives the people the correct picture of our struggle whereas the Revolutionary Ideology gives the people the correct political understanding of our struggle.”[3] At the same time, black British artists and writers were coalescing around a similar understanding of the necessity for black cultural politics. As Brian Alleyne has noted, groups like the Caribbean Artists Movement grappled with how to “. . . express their visions of post-colonial Caribbean society through a European language and European creative forms.”[4] These artists contributed to the radical activism of groups like the Universal Coloured People’s Association and the Black Panther Movement, inserting an Afro-Caribbean aesthetic to influenced by New Left and black nationalist politics.

My paper will look at the rise of “revolutionary art” during the height of the black power era in the United States and Britain. I am interested in how art and aesthetics served in the interest of black power organizations, and how these organizations used art as a mobilizing and community-building tool. Through photography, graphic arts, and painting, artists found an audience in the print culture of black power, as well as in the burgeoning public spaces—galleries, community centers, exhibitions—fostered by black power advocacy.

[1] John Solomos and Les Back, Racism and Society (London: Macmillan, 1996), 95.

[2] Obi Egbuna, The ABC of Black Power Thought, n.d. (British Library), 16.

[3]Black Panther, 20 July 1967.

[4] Brian W. Alleyne, Radicals Against Race: Black Activism and Cultural Politics (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 33.

Rachel Rubin and James Smethurst, ‘”Everything United Everyone Participating”: John La Rose, New Beacon, U.S. Black Arts and the Black Arts International’

There has been a long and well-known connection between Britain and African American literature, performance, music and visual art antedating the foundation of the United States, from Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Robert S. Duncanson, and Paul Laurence Dunbar to the present. There has also been profound current of black political and cultural radicalism circulating between Britain, the Caribbean, Africa, and the United States throughout the first half of the twentieth century, including such figures (to name only a few) as Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, Eric Walrond, George Padmore, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Paul Robeson, Esther Cooper Jackson, Claudia Jones, Kwame Nkrumah, and C.L.R. James. This current featured to varying degrees a convergence of nationalism and Marxism (and Marxist parties and institutions), creating an internationalist minded black radicalism that deeply marked the emergence of Black Power and Black Arts in both Britain and the United States.

This paper will consider the interplay between black (and some white) radicals in Britain and the United States in the creation of Black Arts in both countries. If one takes the Black Art Movement in Britain to be a product of the 1980s (though it was a term in common circulation in the UK from at least the early 1970s), then one might consider this paper as sort of prehistory of British Black Arts. While the impact of the model and ideas of Black Arts in the United States had an acknowledged, if underexplored, impact on Black Arts in Britain, less attention has been paid to role black and white British radicals (and Caribbean and African radicals who were resident for considerable periods in Britain) played in the rise of Black Arts and the new black literature, theater, visual arts, dance, and music of the United States and in the strengthening of the internationalist consciousness and practice of US Black Arts. While some consideration will be given to the work of such figures as Paul Breman and Rosey E. Poole (Dutch nationals living in the United Kingdom) and such institutions and events as Africa Centre, Race Today, the Dark and Light Theatre Club, the Keskidee Arts Centre, and FESTAC ’77 in Nigeria (where the US delegation was headed by visual artist and Africobra founding member Jeff Donaldson), the focus of this paper will be on the way that John La Rose and institutions that he helped found, such as New Beacon Books, the New Beacon Bookshop, and the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, provided a crucial international and internationalist institutional dimension to Black Arts. The paper will argue that this dimension did much to shape the movement, and certainly to frame its legacy, in the US as well as, obviously, the UK—as is acknowledged in the poem by leading US Black Arts poet Jayne Cortez, “Shaking Things Up (For John La Rose),” referenced in this paper’s title.

Ashwani Sharma, ‘Writing Black Art’

An integral and distinctive component in the formation of the Black British Arts Movement in the 1980s was the pivotal place of critical writing and publications in the production, dissemination, and reception of the artistic work. There is a wide-range of related writings – from artist and curatorial notes, statements and documents, exhibition catalogue essays, reviews, magazine criticism to academic journal issues and papers, book publications, and theoretical and historical studies – which have been constitutive in the discursive formation of the critical decade. Key writers, curators, artists, groups, critics and theorists including Kobena Mercer, Stuart Hall, Rasheed Araeen, Eddie Chambers, Paul Gilroy, Gilane Tawadros, Gavin Jantjes, John Akomfrah, Jean Fisher, David A. Bailey, Coco Fusco, Okwui Enwezor and Kodwo Eshun have developed an original corpus that is conceptually inscribed in black visual art, film, photography, and digital media.

In particular, the developments in cultural theory informed the ideas and concepts that were drawn upon and reworked in the artworks and the writing. Working in the interdisciplinary fields of cultural studies, postcolonial criticism, critical race theory, feminism and queer theory, a challenging form of theoretical Black Art writing practice emerged, which has greatly influenced developments in international art, art theory and writing.

This paper examines the form and content of these published writings, and their theorisation of the politics of black aesthetics in a racist Britain, and globally. I especially focus on theories of memory, archives and history, and how the key writings of figures such as Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi Bhabha, constituted a model for a postcolonial/black intellectual and cultural praxis.

The paper further speculates on how this critical tradition has developed, and is sustainable in a globalised context, driven by neoliberal, racial capitalist market ideology in the art world, the academy and publishing, especially with the demise of public funding or institutional support. Are developments in digital technologies and networks, with open access publishing, and black/decolonial theories and study, creating new transnational art practices, writings and publications outside the hegemonic circuits of ‘info-capitalism’, or is the critical decade over?

Dhanveer Singh Brar, ‘Black Secret Technology’

15th October 2015, the Stuart Hall Building in Goldsmiths College, Edward George delivers a lecture that sets out the pre-history of the Black Audio Film Collective’s 1996 film The Last Angel of History. Giving praises to the most high jah rastafari, whist holding a vinyl copy of Robert Johnson’s “King of the Delta Blues Singers”, George spliced together Jacques Derrida, Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Spinoza. His delivery was labyrinthe, multi-channeled, cryptic, and covered ground at a rate which threatened to overwhelm the audience. The trails he weaved revealed the weight of the research that had gone into writing the script for The Last Angel of History, the film in which we played the leading role of “The Data Thief”.

What had happened to Edward George between his appearance on screen as the concept engineer for the Black Audio Film Collective, slit shades giving a nod to Sun Ra, and his arrival at Goldsmiths College almost 20 years later? This paper will think about the name “Edward George” as an unrealized possibility for black british art, culture and intellectualism, one that after the end of the 1990s was never fully allowed to realise itself, but still might be nascent. Unashamedly theoretical and steadfastly auto-didactic, this paper shall consider George’s role in the late Black Audio Film Collective releases as well as his co-produced Flow Motion and Hallucinator projects, as that starting point for an alternative trajectory that diverges from his one-time collaborator John Akomfrah’s more fully realised historical memory project, in favour of something that perhaps by necessity remained obscured.

Shawn Sobers, ‘What came first, the Black or the Arts? An auto ethnography’ 

This highly personal paper will discuss what inspired me about the Black Arts Movement and the critical decade’, and how has it continued to influence my arts practice and thinking.

Growing up in Bath in the 80s, leaving school in 1988 aged 16 to go to art college, the Black Arts Movement was slightly beyond my reach and scope when it was happening at the time, with me first encountering it in 1992 when I bought a copy of ‘Ten 8: Critical Decade – Black British photography in the 80s’, when I was already at university. Going to art school because it was the only thing I felt I was good at, maturing in the early 90s as my platform to ‘say something’, in the light of my personal growth of awareness of my identity as a Black male. In that context, Ten 8: Critical Decade’ became my Bible. The critical decade of the 80s became my creative fuel in the 90s, informing my photography and film discourse mixed with the politics of conscious American Hip Hop of the time such as KRS One and Public Enemy. During my time at university Eddie Chambers contributed some work to a film I was making and became a friend, and the work of the Black Art Movement has continued to inspire my motivation as an artist and as a frame of reference for my values, even when working on projects which are not (quote unquote) “Black”.

This paper is my personal homage to the pioneers of the Black Arts Movement who paved the way for me to find confidence in my ‘Black voice’, and the relevance of the work of the critical decade today, and how, as an educator, it is a fuel I see that is still needed and a vital voice in contemporary creative arts discourse.

Ella S. Mills, ‘Moments and Connections: Cultural Memory, Black Women’s Creativity and the Folds of British Art History 1985-2011′

My paper examines how the Thin Black L|ne(s) exhibition of 2011/12 held at Tate Britain makes a compelling contribution to the recent critical discourses currently working to frame the ‘deluge’ of black British creative practice in 1980s Britain. The exhibition, devised by British artist Lubaina Himid, and co-organized with then Tate curator Paul Goodwin, directly referenced three of Himid’s earlier 1980s exhibitions. The display featured seven British artists, all women of colour whose professional practice emerged during the first half of that critical decade. As one example of a current and increasing series of 1980s ‘Black Arts’ related events, how does the exhibition encounter, or frame, the narratives of a ‘Black Arts Movement’? Specifically, how does the 2011/12 show deal with the challenges of archiving and writing British women artists of colour into a British art canon and into cultural memory? My paper will propose that Himid’s exhibition, through its strategy of being both part of and not part of Tate – as I will argue – works to offer new ways to think about art historical discourse. Himid’s ongoing project of initiating conversations between artworks, artists, audience and institutions, forces the viewer to listen to what the art works are saying: the art works are the discourse. Drawing on Jennifer Tennant Jackson’s discussion of the ‘fold’ in art history, my paper will detail Himid’s strategies for the show, echoed in the artworks of the featured artists, and introduce my proposition that her show presents a new way of encountering and thinking with the newly forming histories of a ‘Black Arts Movement’, and in particular address the consistent folding away of the narratives of British women artists of colour.

Leon Wainwright, ‘Phenomenal Difference: Toward a Philosophy of Black British Art’

This presentation will explore the changing field of art historical perspectives and art practice during and after the ‘critical decade’ of the 1980s. Granting new attention to the material nature of works by Black British artists, it will show that social questions about the art of diaspora demand a specifically philosophical analysis centred on the dynamics of embodied experience and perception. Such a shift responds to the challenge of how to account for the social histories of diaspora artists in Britain by way of aesthetic analysis, crossing critical perspectives with a more ‘affective’ mode of inquiry.

In the context of the art and artists of Black Britain, facing up to the thingly element of the recent historical past – the materiality of artworks – discloses a fruitful arena of philosophical debate. Yet, grasping such works of art in their physical, perceptual immediacy is a challenging task. It can be helped by a fresh investigation of scholarship from early twentieth century phenomenology (the early and posthumously-published works of Merleau-Ponty) and recent interest in the senses, areas that have not been addressed in depth until now with Black British art in mind. What emerges is a clearer understanding of the value of ‘phenomenal difference’: a chiasmic interworking and transformation of knowledge at the site of artworks themselves