An illustration of black female artists

Meet the women who paved the way in the Black British art scene

Long before the YBAs, the Black Arts Movement challenged what contemporary British art looked like, writes Katy Hessel in this extract from The Story of Art Without Men.

‘We were using art to change things’ — Lubaina Himid, 2020

With rising unemployment rates, the destruction of the unions, the premiership of Margaret Thatcher and a growing right-wing conservatism, a group of young, defiant artists exploded onto the British art scene who would collectively come to be known as the Black Arts Movement.

Born out of the active political energy of the radical West Midlands-based Blk Art Group (spearheaded by Claudette Johnson and Marlene Smith) who united in 1979, their mandate was to disrupt, discuss and debate what was deemed ‘British Art’. Claiming a Black British identity with their bold, powerful and explicitly political work, the artists worked in a variety of materials, styles and subjects to fight the discrimination of the British art world. (Note: it wasn’t until 1987 that a work by a Black British female artist, Sonia Boyce, even entered the Tate’s collection.) Forming discussions around what it meant to be a young Black British artist, the group put their words into action and made their presence felt by staging formative exhibitions.

A major driving force was Lubaina Himid (born 1954), who, in the early 1980s, sent notes to art schools across the country pleading that those, in her words, ‘interested in identifying as a Black artist’ send her slides. This resulted in three groundbreaking all-female exhibitions in London: Five Black Women at the Africa Centre (1983, featuring Himid, Houria Niati, Sonia Boyce, Veronica Ryan, Claudette Johnson), Black Women Time Now at the Battersea Arts Centre (1983) and The Thin Black Line at the ICA (1985). Interpolating poetry with theatre, painting with collage, these exhibitions signified the advent of a group who championed the presence and preservation of Black artists.

Born in Zanzibar and raised in London by her textile-designer mother, Himid spent her weekends alternating between visiting department stores and museums. These trips enabled the young Himid to realise the potential of what art could do, from dizzying our eyesight (she was a fan of Bridget Riley) to its purpose of political protest.

Training as a theatre designer in the 1970s – drawn to the medium for its power to make, in her words, ‘revolutionary statements’ and ‘multilayered performances’ – she also uses the medium to physically disrupt white-walled gallery spaces. From the very start, Himid’s art has sparked conversations around identity, hidden histories and critiquing the establishment. Using nontraditional art materials, employing found or domestic objects (bedsheets, drawers, plates, boats), Himid encourages us as viewers to consider the deep political subtexts behind materials, which, when put in dialogue with one another, can reveal historical truths.

Some of Himid’s best-known works are her communities of freestanding painted, collaged, life-size ‘cut-outs’. Taking a swipe at the bigoted politicians of Thatcher’s government, Himid constructed A Fashionable Marriage, 1986. A brilliant satire of the leaders of the day, directly influenced by William Hogarth and his caricatural portrayals of eighteenth-century aristocracy, she portrays the apartheid-supporting, welfare-state-destroying Thatcher as the reprehensible Countess.

Aware of their invisibility in magazines, the media and on gallery walls, Boyce worked in figuration to bring imagery centred on the Black female experience into museums

Katy Hessel

One of my favourite works is her theatrical, larger-than-life, mixed-media, bedsheet-based installation Freedom and Change, 1984 (what she likes to call ‘Running Women’). Based on the semi-nude female figures from Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race), 1922, Himid, interested in taking back Picasso’s ‘stealing of African imagery’, centralises her work on two Black women. Holding hands, pulled along by a pack of four dogs and kicking sand into the eyes of the bald men behind them (perhaps evoking the patriarchy, or the white male artists who have ruled for too long!), this image symbolises, to me, breaking free from the constraints of society, as seen in the sheer delight of the women who set sail into the freedom-filled future.

Working alongside Himid, Sonia Boyce (born 1962) made paintings that uplifted and spotlighted the everyday lives of Black women. Aware of their invisibility in magazines, the media and on gallery walls, Boyce worked in figuration to bring imagery centred on the Black female experience into museums. But her works also challenge the museum’s – and Britain’s – fraught history.

Also working in figuration, Claudette Johnson (born 1959) paints her friends in larger-than-life canvases with expressions imbued with confidence and psychological intensity. With their bodies pushing beyond the confines of the frame, filling almost every inch of the surface, in her words, ‘to look at how women occupy space ’, it is Johnson’s three-part painting Trilogy, 1982–6, (first exhibited at Himid’s Thin Black Line exhibition) which I find particularly powerful. It is her ability to capture not just the surface of these women, but to seek out their stories, and give them a platform to recount them too.

Figuration in photography was also key to the movement, and Scottish artist Maud Sulter (1960–2008) led the way. In her studiostyle portrait series Hysteria, 1991, Sulter and collaborator Himid dressed up in the multiple guises of a nineteenth-century Black artist.

Working together, feeding off the energy and disruptive fervour of the era, the artists continued to mount important exhibitions spotlighting their Black British contemporaries. At the end of the decade, taking ownership as if uniting this generation with their overlooked predecessors, artist Rasheed Araeen curated in 1989 The Other Story at the Hayward Gallery. It was a mammoth, monumental survey collating multiple generations of artists of Asian, Caribbean and African descent (including Himid, Boyce, Mona Hatoum and others), rightfully acknowledging their contribution to British art. Although the exhibition set out to be disruptive and game-changing – and proves now to have been fundamental not just for spotlighting overlooked artists but for expanding the discourse of British art, too – it was, at the time, mostly dismissed by the white art critics.

So, while British art was fêted internationally in the 1990s, the artists associated with the Black Arts Movement began to be overlooked. Although it’s often thought that the artists of the 1990s kickstarted contemporary art in Britain, for me, it is those mentioned above that I believe considerably paved the way with their vital addressing of outwardly political and anti-racist subjects, which today remain more prevalent than ever among the next generation of artists.

Illustration at top: Paris Anthony-Walker

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