“The Place is Here” features black artists based in the United Kingdom, exploring the cultural landscape of the 1980s.
At South London Art Gallery and Middleburgh Institute of Modern Art until 10 September 2017, the exhibition evokes some of the debates taking place between black artists, writers and institutions in the United Kingdom in the 1980s.
Spread between Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art and the South London Gallery, “The Place is Here” documents the cultural landscape of the 1980s for 25 UK-based black artists and collectivevs. The art is presented alongside contextual material from collaborators and supports in other fields. The exhibition complements Tate Modern’s “Soul of a Nation” (12 July – 22 October 2017). The latter features art produced in the United States by black artists in the proceeding two decades, an era when race and identity became major issues at the zenith of the Civil Rights Movement.
Migration and Immigration
As migration has become a divisive concern of the present, this show is spurred by a growing interest in the 1980s when attitudes to immigration, integration and empire had to be reassessed in the aftermath of the independence of Zimbabwe, Britain’s last African colony. The period was also highlighted in last year’s exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, “Thinking Back: A Montage of Black Art in Britain”. Nick Aikens, the curator of both the latter and current shows, points out that black artists in the 1980s were being presented with an art history which is entirely American, European and white, and that they are trying to find ways to negotiate their place in this history from which they are being excluded.
“The Place is Here” is an exhibition with two distinct moods, by turns celebratory of the possibilities of collective solidarity, and unsettled by the abrasive social and political cultures of Britain at this time. Facing the entrance to the show is a cut out figure by Lubaina Himid entitled We Will Be (1985). Her arms folded, this figure is not about to yield. Her clothes are decorated with a collage of images of black role models and inscribed with a poem that reads: “We will be who we want, Where we want.” It ends with the line of exhibition’s title. The stance suggests both bravura, affirmation and uncertainty.
One of the most striking images in the show is Donald Rodney’s installation The House that Jack Built (1987). It also appears at first glance to display innocent confidence. A figure sits leaning against a tree in front of a childlike silhouette of a house, but the fabric of the building is found to be X-rays of the artist’s body, stricken with cycle cell anaemia, and the text incised into this fabric reads: “My family tree has roots muscle deep and Jack’s house is built on 75 million black souls.”
Many works evoke feelings of foreboding and unpredictability, where lilting harmony can swiftly and unpredictably turn nasty, as in the experience of Kalbinder Kaur Hayre, an Indian/British woman who was chatting with two friends as she walked home from college in 1985. She drew the attention of three youhts in a van, and was killed when they turned the vehicle into a weapon and crushed her against a wall. She died of her injuries. The narrative emerges in Pratibha Parmar’s poetic video Sari Red (1988). The work resonates with the present strategies of extremist terrorism that similarly target peaceful sites by weponising vehicles and domestic items.
As Ben Luke commets in his review of the show for the Evening Standard, “The works and archival materials here are not just enduringly powerful but very often jarringly timely.” The dichotomy of a latent threat not far beneath a benign surface is also evoked in Mona Hatoum’s video Roadworks (1985). The camera follows the artist’s performance as she resolutely strides barefoot through the streets of Brixton, a place in South London where violent race riots took place in 1981 and 1985. The film strikes a surreal note because dogging her steps are a pair of black boots, attached by their laces to her ankles they drag behind. Other people on the street occasionally acknowledge her action with spirited banter; but the boots, a type commonly worn by both the police and right wing racist youth groups of the time, portend notes of intimidation in these off screen voices.
A similar taint of cheer blighted with menace is present in Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain so Great (1986) by Sonia Boyce – this includes the work’s title that evokes a popular light hearted quip suggesting unwanted sexual intercourse. The artist’s self-portrait looks out on the right hand panel of the four-section work against decorative briars, in the manner of British Arts and Crafts design fashionable in the colonial period of the 19th century. Superimposed on this background are three crucifixes, each containing a generic colonial image. Boyce counters the implied welcoming subservience to a missionary interest, represented by the sign of the cross, with the empowerment of personal sensual awareness: she is roused when she thinks of England.
Another side of the immigration experience is found in Martina Attille’s film Dreaming Rivers (1988). The production was realised in collaboration with Sankofa Film and Video Collective, one of several organisations documented in the exhibition that supported art from the African and Caribbean diaspora. Set in an isolated British bedsit in indistinct twilight, the film visits the last moments of a Caribbean woman’s life. Her husband and children gone, her final revelry is of homeland memories.
Several organisations such as Sankofa Film and Video Collective, notably the Blk Art Group and the Black Art Gallery, are spotlighted with documentary archive displays with many rare original artefacts and photos. These highlight collectives that supported art from the African and Caribbean diaspora showing the role of community and solidarity among artists and activists.
Reviewing the show for Studio International, Veronica Simpson points out that “The ghost of Stuart Hall, a Jamaican-born cultural theorist, who died in 2014, looms over the show.” Hall’s summary in the 1999 book Visual Culture – The Reader underscores almost every work in the show:
Culture comes into play at precisely the point where biological individuals become subjects, and that what lies between the two is not some automatically constituted ‘natural’ process of socialization but much more complex processes of formation.
‘I wander through each chartered street’
In Black Audio Film Collective’s Twilight City (1989), the city of London itself is shown as an evolving construct of urban renewal driven by the conservative government policies of prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The film shows how communities in the area known as the Isle of Dogs were displaced to make way for office development, a consequence of the deregulation of the City of London stock market in 1987. The film documents a psychogeography of the displacement of communities by economic factors.
In an interview in 1987 Thatcher’s made the comment:
There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.
The society she disavowed encompassed self-help social organisations such as Black Audio Film Collective. Few survived beyond the early 1990s and much of the vibrant momentum seen in “The Place is Here” was assimilated into multiculturalism with several individual artists, such as Isaac Julien and Mona Hatoum, building international careers hand in hand with the burgeoning art market itself a further effect of financial deregulation. Stuart Hall wrote:
There is no understanding Englishness without understanding its imperial and colonial dimensions.
“The Place is Here” shows the implications of this in the lived experiences of black artists and reminds the contemporary viewer that the contradictions, unfinished processes and confusions of the post-colonial world continue to influence present lives.
- “Stop Ma Pa Ta”: Beninese artists at Villa Arson, Nice – August 2017 – the show highlights 14 artists from Benin, asking questions on immigration, national identity and exploitation
- “The Body is a Big Place”: Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor at the Science Gallery London – July 2017 – the exhibition spans various disciplines including medicine, science and philosophy
- Do Artists Need to Leave Africa to be Successful? Art Basel Conversation – video – July 2017 – South African artists Candice Breitz and Zanele Muholi discuss their decisions to leave or stay in Africa during Art Basel 2017
- Shezad Dawood launches his ten-part film cycle during the 57th Venice Biennale – June 2017 – British artist Shezad Dawood encourages the public to join in the conversation by making the first episode available to read online
- “Prejudice at Home: A Parlour, a Library, and a Room”: British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare at James Cohan, New York – in pictures – March 2017 – British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare highlights issues of power and prejudice through the lens of history
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