CHRISTINE LINDEY recommends a challenging retrospective at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London in this article for The Morning Star.
AMONG the immigrants to Britain from the Caribbean in the 1950s were Guyanese political activists Jessica and Eric Huntley and this fascinating exhibition at the Guildhall art gallery honours and explains their instrumental contribution to the African diaspora’s politics and culture in Britain from the late 1960s on.
No Colour Bar brings alive the experiences and issues faced by their community through a rich and diverse display of their archival material, along with the literature and art which they championed, among them artists’ groups such as the Caribbean Artists Movement and Black British Arts.
To counteract the paucity of public support for African and Caribbean culture, the Huntleys founded Bogle-L’Ouverture Publishing.
Named after the Jamaican and Haitian revolutionary leaders, from 1969 it published seminal texts, poetry, novels, posters and greeting cards asserting the African diaspora’s cultural identity and fostering resistance to the sociopolitical injustices which it faced.
That same year they opened their west London front room as a bookshop and meeting place to encourage interaction between the community and its cultural workers. The bookshop moved to commercial premises in 1975 but consciously retained its informal, homely ambiance, generating a vibrant forum for creative and political cross-fertilisations and activities such as poetry readings by Linton Kwesi Johnson and Valerie Bloom.
It was renamed in 1980 to commemorate Dr Walter Rodney, the Guyanese thinker-activist assassinated for anti-colonial resistance at the age of 38.
An interactive multimedia installation by the Afro-Caribbean scholar-artist Michael McMillan recreates the bookshop’s ambiance and provides multisensory information about the ideas, preoccupations and historical events which conditioned black British life in the 1970s and 1980s.
Imaginative touch screens, digital photo frames, books and sounds introduce a plethora of themes such as readings by activists and poets or the story of the 1970s racist and fascist attacks on the shop and other progressive outlets, which led to their joint resistance through the Bookshop Joint Action Group.
McMillan’s installation is surrounded by a comprehensive exhibition of paintings by artists, some of whom like Tam Joseph arrived in Britain as children only to be stigmatised and undervalued for their colour.
Joseph’s 1983 painting UK School Report is an uncompromising accusation of racial stereotyping suffered by black boys in British schools.
Three portrait heads of the same young man challenge our gaze. Unsmiling as in ID photographs, they increasingly fill three identically sized, rectangular frames which are underwritten with comments in different handwritings, as in school reports.
In the first, Good at Sports, the boy wears a neat uniform and European-style short hair with a parting. In the second, Likes Music, he sports Afro hair and more informal clothes.
But in the last, Needs Surveillance, he sports long dreadlocks and his head totally fills its frame as if resisting the constraints of typecasting, while its title refers both to school discipline and police harassment.
The faces painted in red, white and blue assert the boy’s Britishness yet this identity is undermined by his society’s racial prejudice.
Sonia Boyce’s She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On depicts a lone young woman somehow managing to physically support two adults and two children from her raised hands but whose expression mingles resolute defiance with hurt and vulnerability. This is a powerful, feminist statement about Afro-Caribbean women risking losing touch with their sense of self as they shoulder the demands of others.
Keith Piper, founder member of the 1980s BLK Art Group, explores colonialism’s dark legacy in paintings such as (You are now entering) Mau Mau Country.
Martyred but defiant Kenyan warriors — one with his lips stitched together with thread — are furiously painted, blood-red paint dripping on raw, unstretched and torn hessian. Angry slogans such as “No Barclaycards here” and “No little white lies” culminate in the triumphant, anti-colonial “We are all pagans.”
Other works such as Claudette Johnson’s sensitive but decisive black pastel drawings of strong black women, Paul Dash’s intense Self-Portrait and Denzil Forrester’s joyfully rebellious Witchdoctor celebrate their people’s beauty, intellect, energy and strength.
A display of book jackets, posters and greeting cards sold in the Bogle-L’Ouverture/Rodney bookshop includes original artwork such as Errol Lloyd’s painting of the poet Accabre Huntley.
Its reappearance on her poems’ book jacket exemplifies the curators’ welcome refusal to rigidly demarcate between “fine” art and illustration.
Such sensitive echoes and connections permeate the exhibition. We hear speeches and poetry readings in the installation by authors whose books we initially discovered through the display of book jackets.
The exhibition can be experienced on many levels, ranging from visceral responses to the arts to a scholarly study of unfamiliar topics. There is much to see, learn and enjoy in this energising testimony of the socio-political power of arts. It’s free — go if you can.
• No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960-1990 runs at the Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard, London EC2 until January 24, opening times: cityoflondon.gov.uk/guildhallartgallery
For the original report go to http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-0244-Revelatory-view-of-black-artistry