Making Waves: 'Black Art' in Britain before the 1980s

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In “Iconography after Identity,” a text published as a part of the book Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain, art historian Kobena Mercer puts forward a challenge.1 He calls for artists, curators, and critics to begin the long, overdue process of constructing an art history that maps the dialogues and developments of black British art onto broader stories of British and twentieth-century art as a whole. He urges the reader to confront the critical tendencies that have sidelined comprehensive analysis of black British art, and move beyond narratives
that approach the creative production of black artists
instrumentally, as a lens through which, at best, to examine (and, at worst, explain) the social and political implications of race and ethnicity in twentieth century Britain. Echoing Mercer’s assessment, recent publications by scholars such as Leon Wainwright and, from an American perspective, Darby English have highlighted the ways in which this problematic halfstory has been written both by racism’s “inventive way of isolating black realities from the spaces whose purity it would conserve by doing so” and also – notably – even by some countermeasures against this systemic racism.
Returning to British shores, to these two factors we might also add the dominance of voices from the fields of sociology and cultural theory, not least in important foundational works by Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, in the establishment of early scholarship around “black art” and black British artists. Arguing for a loosely reconfigured version of Erwin Panofsky’s
iconographic model, Mercer offers one possibility for object-based engagement. More recently, English, Wainwright and others have looked to frameworks of materiality and phenomenology (respectively), to de-center narratives of racial and ethnic identity in art historical assessments of works by black and diaspora artists. But, of course, these critiques are not new, nor is the stilted discourse that they observe. They join the voices of Rasheed Araeen, Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid, Eddie Chambers, Keith Piper, Veronica Ryan, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Marlene Smith,
and others, a chorus gathering force since the late 1970s, when the constellation of artists, activists, and critics of what has come to be known, in some circles, as the Black Arts Movement burst on the British art scene. Working in relation to questions of “blackness” in Britain and the possibilities and implications of a black British art through visual practice and in art-adjacent practices as artist-curators, artist-critics, artist-researchers and artist-archivists, though somewhat imprecise and contested, the
Black Arts Movement laid the foundations for the radical art history that lies at the root of Mercer’s challenge: an art history that accounts for the work of black British artists within the context of wider national and international aesthetic, cultural and
historical formations, rather than footnotes haphazardly inserted into mainstream narratives of art in the twentieth century, if they (black British artists) are included at all.
This article springs from the interstices of a pair of projects—one that is wrapping up, and the other starting out—which continue the work of excavating this art history, building on a rapidly growing literature around the Black Arts Movement in Britain by tracing its roots from the early 1960s.
Following the contours of the first two of what Stuart Hall has called “waves” of black arts activity in postwar Britain, this article takes as a starting point a critical examination of the notion of
“black art” in a British context in order to unravel attendant questions around the formation and framing of what has come to be generally known as a Black Arts Movement. This mode of engagement with the creative products of black British artists must address, as Mercer notes, “the necessity of interpreting the work as a document of the human imagination that exists as an object of aesthetic attention in its own right.”
This is not to say, however, that we should, or even can, disavow the politics of identity or politics more broadly. Indeed, much of the work created during the broad period from the early 1960s is overtly concerned with the radical possibilities made available by the construction and interrogation of identities that are
variously and simultaneously defined by race, gender, class, and sexuality. To disentangle aesthetics and politics entirely in these cases would be futile and tell a different, but still problematic, half-story. Rather, building on and supplementing the work that has been done in this field by earlier historians and critics working within identity-based frameworks, this article, and the projects from which it arises, aim to create a more comprehensive understanding of artworks that at times deal explicitly, though not exclusively, with identity, together with wider questions of politics, aesthetics, and the construction of art’s histories.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)48-61
Number of pages14
JournalNka: Journal of Contemporary African Art
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2019


  • Rasheed Araeen
  • David Oluwale
  • Stuart Hall
  • black British art history
  • AfroAsian definitions of black


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