Why Are We Here? With Black Artists & Modernism

‘Why Are We Here? New Stories from the Middlesbrough Collection with Black Artists and Modernism’ at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Ongoing since 23 March 2019. Image: MIMA.

Why Are We Here? New Stories from the Middlesbrough Collection with Black Artists & Modernism opened at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) in March 2019. It involved a collaboration with researchers from Black Artists & Modernism (BAM) who, together with MIMA’s curatorial team, audited MIMA’s collection for all contributions by British artists[1] of African, Asian, Caribbean, and Middle East and North Africa region descent, living in the UK and made between 1900 and 2016. It is a collaboration between University of the Arts London and Middlesex University and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), seeking to explore the connection between Black British artists’ practice and their relationship to Modernism. Researchers from the Black Artists & Modernism (BAM) research group include: Sonia Boyce, David Dibosa, susan pui san lok, Paul Goodwin and Hammad Nasar amongst several others. The exhibition that resulted from the audit of MIMA’s collection is a first step towards the decolonisation of the Middlesbrough Collection and reveals previously hidden art historical narratives.

Looking at this exhibition it is important to consider the use of the term ‘Black’ in this context. In this instance, ‘Black’ describes a political perspective shared by immigrants, often from former British or European colonies, and their descendants. Art historian and researcher for BAM Sophie Orlando says that ‘Black’ does ‘not designate an ethnicity or colour, but a political place of enunciation that is common to migrants or British people who immigrated’[2]. With pride like a peacock displaying its feathers, artists associated with the British Black Arts Movement, which emerged in the early 1980s, choose to capitalise ‘B’ in ‘Black’. As the critical theorist Gen Doy explains, ‘Black with an uppercase B has tended to be used to refer to ‘Black’ as a proudly chosen identity, history and culture associated with African roots, distinguishing the terms from a simple adjective ‘black’ describing colour’[3].

Lubaina Himid, 'Toussaint L’Ouverture', (1987). Himid depicts a man in smart military costume in a heroic stance, with a quotation reading: This NEWS WOULDN'T BE NEWS IF YOU HAD HEARD OF TOUSSAINT L'OUVERTURE. BETWEEN 1789 & 1815 WITH THE SINGLE EXCEPTION OF BONAPARTE HIMSELF, NO SINGLE FIGURE APPEARED ON THE HISTORICAL STAGE MORE GREATLY GIFTED THAN THIS MAN, A SLAVE TILL HE WAS 45. C.L.R. JAMES

Lubaina Himid, ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’, (1987). Purchased with assistance from Art Fund and the ACE/V&A Museum Purchase Grant Fund, 2017. Image: MIMA. © The artist.

Many of the artists represented in this exhibition are connected to the British Black Arts Movement. Self-identifying as a radical political art collective, the movement began to take shape in the early 1980s. The British Black Arts Movement was in part an artistic response to years of colonisation inflicted on African, Asian and Caribbean geographies by white imperialist superpowers. Their activities aimed at encouraging a politicisation of Black consciousness, in part through creating discursive spaces through publications, exhibitions, events and talks.

The First National Black Art Convention, organised by the Blk Art Group was held at Wolverhampton Polytechnic now Wolverhampton University in 1982. From this developed a new wave of Black Art, central to the current Middlesbrough Collection display, which reflected the social and political issues experienced by a generation of Black artists, many of whose parents came to Britain in the 50s and 60s. They reacted against a mainstream art world, which at the time did not reflect the experiences of the black population and was in hock to a Eurocentric and Western art historical canon. At this time, Thatcherism was in full swing, churning out anti-immigrant rhetoric with racist undertones, for which Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech had arguably set the scene. The effect of such sentiments saw violent protests against oppressive policing in Brixton and Toxteth in the early 1980s and riots in Handsworth in 1985 that were documented by the young photographer Pogus Caesar (b. 1953), who is unfortunately not represented in this exhibition. Formed in this milieu, the artists associated with the British Black Arts Movement can be identified as part of a longer lineage and international tradition of Black aesthetics stretching back to earlier proponents of Black Modernism, defined by Houston Baker, in his 1987 book Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. British Black Modernists include artists such as Ronald Moody (1900-1984), Frank Bowling (b. 1934) and Rasheed Araeen (b. 1935), who displayed an alternative aesthetic rooted in Black critical thought and expression, contesting the appropriation of Black culture by white people.

So, why it is important that: Why Are We Here? With Black Artists & Modernism is exhibited at MIMA? And how does this collection enrich the lives of visitors to it, giving representation and voice to otherwise marginalised groups of people? Historically, to put it bluntly, Teesside as a region has a lack of ethnic diversity, with Redcar and Cleveland the second least diverse local authority in the UK (with a 98.5% white population). Middlesbrough is the most ethnically diverse local authority in the Tees Valley, with a BAME population of 11.7% (identified by the 2011 Census), however, this has only increased in recent years – in fact by 86% since 2001[4]. Having grown up in Teesside and been subjected to ‘Paki-bashing’, I have first-hand experience of the ignorance, racism and xenophobia that can percolate in such a place. Therefore, the fact that this very collection exists in Middlesbrough and is being highlighted at MIMA after many years of acquisitions and displays of largely white male European canonised artists, and not much else, is progressive and exciting in itself. However, that is not to say that it is without problems.

It is an unsettling fact that while MIMA and various other arts institutions in the North may be welcoming Black and minority ethnic artists into their spaces and indeed their collections, it is rare to see BAME individuals recruited into gallery roles in North East arts institutions. In fact, statistics reported by Arts Council over last few years show that on average, 2% (or less) of their NPOs (National Partnership Organisations) workforces in the North East are BAME[5]. This collection re-display may feature a magnificent and ground-breaking array of Britain’s best ‘Black’ talent, however, real parity and equality surely needs to extend not only to the artists represented on the gallery walls but to the make-up of their very artistic workforce.

Sonia Boyce, 'She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose)', 1986. A young woman gazes out at the viewer while holding her arms up to support a family group wearing Sunday best clothing. She wears a pink dress patterned with black roses and stands against a mosaic background.

Sonia Boyce, ‘She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose)’, 1986. Purchased with assistance from the V&A Purchase Grant Fund 1987/88. Image : MIMA. © The artist.

The work exhibited at MIMA is of high quality, and there is an abundance of it. There are many positive aspects to its curation, for example the presentation of Black artists alongside the work of white artists, mostly women from the last century. For example: Nancy Spero (1926-2009), Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993), Nancy Tennant (1904-1969), Mary Fedden (1915-2012) and so on. Nevertheless, the absence of pivotal figures from the Black British Arts movement from the display, such as Eddie Chambers (b. 1960), Vanley Burke (b. 1951), Rasheed Araeen, Sutapa Biswas (b. 1962) and Pogus Caesar (b.1953), highlights the gaps in the collection, which could be addressed through future acquisitions. Despite such absences, the exhibition is commendable in its inclusion of lesser known artists and Black women artists who have typically been overlooked. The questions, posed by the exhibition: ‘Where am I? Why am I here? Who am I? What am I doing? What’s next?’ are relevant to central themes of identity and self-identification, the discovery of the featured artists and the revelation of their personal narratives within the show.

Standout pieces in the collection include Sonia Boyce’s ‘She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose)’ (1986), which was the lynchpin work that inspired the exhibition – a sizeable iconic pastel piece that depicts a younger version of the artist in what looks like a recreation of a family photo, except that the picture defies reality as the younger Boyce holds up her family with her arms (see image above). The piece was acquired in 1987 by the Cleveland Gallery[6] and rarely exhibited in-house until 2017, when clients of a local charity, Investing in People and Culture, concurrently selected it as the starting point of the first-ever permanent display of the collection. Ethnic pattern plays a significant role in the composition and perspective of the piece, and this is juxtaposed with Boyce’s dress which alludes to the English rose. In this case the roses are black and so the work toys with ideas of hybrid cultural identities. Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s Self-Portrait with Lipsticks’ (2014), shows the artist again as a young girl, except using the actual photograph. Imposed on the black and white face of Singh Burman as a little girl are coloured clippings from Western popular culture, from fashion and beauty magazines and other paraphernalia, including a topless nude woman. Here the artist, like Sonia Boyce, merges images of old times with modern ones in the West.

Kara Walker, 'Girl' (2006). A mixed media collage with a silhouette of a tall weeping woman looking down at a cut-out of a uniformed male rescue worker holding a small child in his arms.

Kara Walker, ‘Girl’ (2006). Mixed media collage on paper. Presented by Art Fund under Art Fund International, 2009. Image courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co. © The artist.

Kara Walker’s ‘Girl’ (2006), see image above, also juxtaposes imagery of times of strife, showing visions of pre-Civil War America through genteel eighteenth-century paper cut-outs, collaged with a photograph from Hurricane Katrina in which a baby is rescued by a uniformed man. Lubaina Himid’s life-size artwork ‘Toussaint L’Overture’ (1987) again juxtaposes historical imagery. Toussaint L’Overture, who led Haiti to independence from colonial rule, is portrayed alongside collaged newspaper fragments exposing 1980s racist attitudes, suggesting to the viewer that the battle against oppression of Black people has been lost. Glenn Ligon’s ‘Study for Negro Sunshine II #15’ (2010) is in a completely different style. His semiotic conceptualism challenges the value of language and its meaning in society. Black letters call into question the difficulties of translating cultures.

Why Are We Here? With Black Artists & Modernism has been a huge success for MIMA, prompting serious discussion about who and what should be collected for the public good. Art institutions must take note and find ways to actively change their positions. As the recently deceased curator, writer and critic Maurice Berger once asked: ‘Why are certain art historians, tied to critical theory, given a pass on the lack of diversity in their work?’ He suggested that while it was a problem to deal with modern and contemporary art and never engage artists of colour or the issue of race, it is also a problem to do so in the spirit of racial opportunism. Either way, Berger implored, ‘you have to do the hard work of educating yourself and examining your biases. Otherwise, you’re part of the problem’[7]. This exhibition demonstrates the extent to which MIMA and its curators are seeking to address the problem.

Why Are We Here? With Black Artists & Modernism, MIMA, 23 March 2019. The exhibition has been extended and a new end date will be announced.

Sara Makari-Aghdam is an independent curator, workshop facilitator and arts writer from Stockton-on-Tees.

This review is supported by MIMA.


[1] Or those who spent time living, working or studying in the UK to the extent that their work can be considered to have contributed to the development of Modernism in the UK.

[2] Orlando, S. (2016). British Black Art, Debates on Western Art History, Paris: Editions Dis Voir, Introduction

[3] Chambers, E. (2014). Black Artists in British Art, A History since the 1950s, London: I.B Taurus, Note vi

[4] See the ‘Regional Ethnic Diversity’ report published by the UK Government in August 2018 and updated in July 2019. Accessed via: https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/uk-population-by-ethnicity/national-and-regional-populations/regional-ethnic-diversity/latest

[5] See the Arts Council England Diversity report 2016-2017 published by Arts Council, England. Accessed via: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Diversity_report_1718.pdf p. 17

[7] Maurice Berger in conversation online with the reviewer and others on 16 April 2018 (in tribute: born 22 May 1956-23 March 2020, death from COVID-19)

Published 04.05.2020 by Holly Grange in Reviews

2,006 words