Depicting the Magi: origins, gifts and representing men of colour
Companion Guide to Black British History
This publication by Oxford University Press, entitled the Companion Guide to Black British History, is the first such publication by Oxford or anybody else on this subject and was released to coincide with the 200 anniversary of the abolition of slavery in England (1807-2007). It is a book that charts the 2000 year history of black people in England and their invaluable and hitherto unacknowledged contribution, not only to Britain’s rich and varied culture, but also to the literary, artistic and intellectual life of the British Isles. In the spirit of this momentous event Leslie Primo, amongst many other writers, was asked to contribute to this landmark publication.
The following three Fine Art historical texts from the visual arts section of the Companion Guide represent Leslie Primo’s contributions to the Companion Guide to Black British History. Click on the toggle to open/close the extract.
Dido Elizabeth (Belle) Lindsey: A Life
Dido Elizabeth Belle was born 1761 and recent new evidence discovered genealogist Sarah Minney indicates her baptism taking place at St. George, Bloomsbury in November 1766. Sir John Lindsay, then in the Royal Navy, on duty in the West Indies circa 1760-65, discovered Dido’s mother, a slave, on board a captured Spanish ship. She was brought to England where a probably brief relationship between them resulted in Dido’s birth. Soon after her birth Dido was taken to Kenwood House to be brought up, with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray by Lord and Lady Mansfield, John Lindsay’s uncle. Again recent evidence unearthed by genealogist Sarah Minney points towards the Mansfield’s owning a house in Bloomsbury hence this being the district of Dido’s birth. This house was subsequently destroyed by fire and so the family moved Kenwood, possibly taking Dido with them. Lord Mansfield was the Lord Chief Justice who would later be responsible for the landmark ruling of 1772 that freed the runaway slave, James Somerset. Sir John Lindsay died when Dido was about 25 (1788), leaving £1000 in his will to share between Dido and a mysterious half-brother, an acknowledgment, perhaps, of Dido being Lindsay’s natural daughter.
Dido lived at Kenwood for 30 years, and was described both as a slave by visitors and as a companion to her cousin, Elizabeth Murray; famously captured together in a painting showing them in the grounds of Kenwood. Dido left Kenwood after Lord Mansfield’s death in 1793, inheriting £500 and £100 a year for life. At this time slavery was still legal, and Lord Mansfield took the precaution of confirming in his will Dido’s guaranteed freedom. After her departure from Kenwood records show that Dido’s name changed from Belle to Davinier. Her income and family background may have afforded her the opportunity to marry well. However, no further information exists with regard to Mr Davinier, he could have been a clergyman, but at this point all records regarding the couple cease.
Black British artists who have risen to prominence post-1945
To tell the story of black British artists is to tell the story of an art form that is now seemingly integrated within the British art scene. Although physically here in Britain for some time, black British artistic practise has, since its early beginnings, found itself manifested as a strand outside of the British art scene. It is an art form that has often manifested itself as distinct from the conventional traditions of the white British mainstream and artistic production. However, what will become apparent is that black British art is an art-form that casts its net a little further a–field than Western Classical traditions. Taking its inspiration not only from Western and non-Western cultural influences, but also from the experiences of those black artists living in Britain and the circumstances of modernity in which they found themselves in pre-war and post-war Britain; while at the same time drawing on post-colonial, now Commonwealth influences.
The early years of black arts practise in post-war Britain saw the rise of perhaps the most important progenitor of the black arts movement in Britain. The self-trained Jamaican wood sculptor and former dentist, Ronald Moody (1900 – 1984) had already arrived in London by 1923. His 1937 one-man show in Paris, followed by his 1938 show in Amsterdam, had already assured his early success in the European art world. Although his success was cut short by the onset of war he was able to resume his work after the war in his London studio. It was not long before he was able to hold a one-man show in London, May 1946 at the Arcade Gallery, off Bond Street, with subsequent regular exhibitions following throughout the 50’s. However, it was after his death that Ronald Moody became truly recognised as one of Britain’s foremost Modernist sculptors when in 2002 the Tate Gallery, London, purchased and featured his work in ‘A Reputation Restored’. The 50’s rapidly became the first great heyday in black British arts as more and more black artists arrived from the commonwealth to establish themselves. Such was their success in this period that the painter Francis Newton Sousa (1924 – 2002) was quoted as saying ‘I make more money by my painting than the Prime Minister by his politics.’
The post-war years also saw the former British colony Guyana, play a significant part in the burgeoning black British art scene with the arrival to Britain in the 50’s of two of the most important artists to come from this country. Black British art in this period grew up and made strides towards the future in the shape of the painter Frank Bowling. Bowling was born in Guyana in 1936, yet at the age of fourteen he had already immigrated to England where he would complete his school education. It was shortly after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1959 that Bowling had his first solo exhibition in 1962 at the Grabowski Galleries entitled “Image in Revolt”. By 1966 however, Bowling was dissatisfied with his lack of progress in London and established himself by mid 1966 in the then modern art capitol of the world, New York. Bowling had his first one-man exhibition earlier in January 1966 at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery. Success throughout the sixties culminated in Bowling’s highly successful 1971 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Although much of Frank Bowling’s success has been mostly achieved in America, (much like David Hockney, who also achieved much of his success in America) Bowling considers himself a British artist. Indeed after decades of being at the cutting edge in the British art scene Frank Bowling’s contribution to British art was formally recognised with his election to the Royal Academy in May 2005, making him the first black British artist to be elected to this establishment in its over two hundred year history.
The other significant artist to come out of Guyana arriving in Britain just two years after Bowling was another painter, Aubrey Williams (1926-1990). Born in Georgetown, Aubrey Williams travelled throughout Europe before eventually settling in London in 1954 where he attended St. Martin’s College of Art. While still a first year student Williams held his first one-man show at a gallery in Westbourne Grove, London. After marrying Eve Lafargue, also from British Guyana, he was persuaded by her to give up his day jobs of factory and café work and take up painting full-time. Aubrey Williams’s big break through came after he showed his work to the South African painter and teacher Denis Bowen. Bowen was the founder of the New Vision Group, a non-profit arts organisation primarily interested in non-figurative work, which was precisely the kind of work that Williams was producing at that time. Williams’s work was subsequently included in the New Vision 58 Open Exhibition of 1958, and other venues that were associated with this organisation also exhibited Williams’s work across London. This extensive exposure ensured greater contact with other artists in the London and international art scene, which eventually led to invitations to show in Paris, Milan and Chicago. Aubrey Williams died in London in 1990.
These early pioneers of black British art would eventually be recognised, post-millennium, by the mainstream art establishment for their contribution to the British art scene; however, black British artists would not again experience the heady days of the 50’s. Indeed it was becoming abundantly clear that in the decades following, the initial success of these black artists was beginning to fade in the minds of the mainstream British art establishment. This was due in no small part to the lack of support and recognition by major established art institutions; indeed without any recognition by these institutions of the existence and impact of these particular artists’ achievements, black British art would not find its way into the cannon of British art history and thus quickly fade from memory and history.
Although the artists mentioned previously continued to produce work throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, it was not until the emergence of a new generation of black British artists in the 80’s that the British art establishment would once again have to recognise that black British artists were still here and a potent force in the art scene. This new breed of artists would emerge out of the fertile landscape of the 60’s and artists such as Rasheed Araeen, Rita Keegan, Donald Rodney, Steve McQueen and Chris Ofili would be at the vanguard of this black Renaissance.
Ironically the achievements of the artists from the previous generation would be kept alive and brought to the attention of the wider British public by an artist from this new generation, Rasheed Araeen. The pioneering exhibition, The Other Story, organised by Araeen, opened at a major British art institution the Hayward Gallery, London in 1989. Araeen was born in Karachi in 1935 and in common with some of the artists mentioned previously did not at first train or graduated in art. In this case the profession was civil engineering, but Araeen soon turn his talents to sculpture inventing a new approach to the medium of burning an object to transform it into another form. On arrival in London in 1964, Araeen discovered the work of the modernist British sculptor Anthony Caro, which would have a profound effect on his work. By 1975 Araeen had turned to writing highlighting the inherent racism and imperialistic attitudes that still existed within the British mainstream art establishment. He founded magazines such as Black Phoenix (1978) and its later incarnation Third Text (1982), and set up multicultural projects, these activities would eventually culminate in the Hayward Gallery exhibition. Rasheed Araeen is currently writing an inclusive history of post-war art in Britain.
The eighties also saw the arrival on the UK art scene of an artist that would become the crucial bridge between the old and the new generation of black British artists. Rita Keegan was born in New York in 1949 into a world that traditionally still did not formally recognise black people let alone women, as being artists, yet from an early age Keegan already knew she wanted be an artist. After attending art school in New York from the age of 14-18, Keegan travelled to Europe in 1973 before eventually moving Brixton in London in 1982. It is here that she became involved in black British art scene and with the help of a grant from Lambeth Arts Council would begin to produce work in Britain. This work and the contacts that Keegan made would place her at centre of the new generation of black British artists born in the 60’s that included Donald Rodney, Keith Piper and Sonia Boyce.
By the early 90’s some steps were being made towards redressing the imbalance of Black artistic representation in British recorded literature of art history. In 1989 historian, Eddie Chambers set up the African and Asian Visual Artists Archive (AAVAA); he would co-ordinate the running of this facility until 1992 when Rita Keegan would become its director. Keegan’s own work as an artist continued throughout this period and led to her inclusion in the New York exhibition curated by Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd called Transforming the Crown: African, Asian & Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966-1996. In this exhibition Rita Keegan would find herself back in her native New York, but this time as a British Artist.
The Transforming the Crown exhibition, held in New York in 1997, introduced to an international audience the existence of black British artists, and through the work shown re-established the connection between the earlier generation of black British artists and this new generation of artists. The inclusions read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of black British artists, including: Sonia Boyce, Sokari Douglas Camp, Donald Rodney, Ronald Moody, Keith Piper, Maud Sulter, Aubrey Williams, Sutapa Biswas, Lubaina Himid and many more. In many ways this exhibition was the culmination of initiatives and exhibitions throughout the eighties in Britain such as the establishment in 1983 of The Black-Art Gallery in North London where Keith Piper, Maud Sulter and Sonia Boyce presented one-person shows. These series of initiatives were at the heart of raising the profile and stimulating awareness of the black British artist in the wider general public and within mainstream British art establishment.
One of those new generation of black British artists included in Transforming the Crown was Donald Rodney (1961-1998). Born and raised in Birmingham, Rodney became synonymous amongst his peers with innovation and versatility. With his use of images from the mass media and text based work he explored political and social issues around racism, masculinity and issues based around his own body and his experience of living with sickle cell anaemia. Donald Rodney would go on to exhibit his work in several exhibitions of young black artists in the 80’s right up to his death from sickle cell anaemia in 1998.
Intimately involved with raising the profile of black British artists was the British painter Lubaina Himid. Himid was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania in 1954, and after studying theatre design at Wimbledon School of Art and cultural history at the Royal College of Art, London she successfully turned her hand to curating in 1984 with Into the Open at the Mappin Art Gallery in Sheffield, followed a year later by yet another show organised by Himid, The Thin Black Line. Held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, it featured the work of eleven women artists, including: Jennifer Comrie, Brenda Agard and Maud Sulter. In 1998 Himid was invited to be artist in residence at Tate Gallery St. Ives where she began work on a series of large paintings based on images of empty rooms aimed at evoking a sense of insecurity and abandonment.
The fertile landscape that was the sixties would also give birth to the 2004 Turner Prize nominee, Yinka Shonibare (1962), and arguably the current two most high profile black artists on the British and International art scene, Steve McQueen and Chris Ofili. Steve McQueen was born in England in 1969; his studies at the Chelsea School of Art and Goldsmith’s College of Art in London were also supplemented by an extra year of studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. However, the biggest impact on McQueen’s work would be his discovery, during his time at Goldsmith’s College, of film as a medium for his work. His films, mostly in Black and White, often tend to feature the artist himself in cameo roles. McQueen’s approach is one of visual simplicity, which is in direct contrast to the controlled environment of the gallery spaces in which they are projected. One such film is his 1997 film called Deadpan in which he restages a memorable moment from a Buster Keaton movie. In the scene a person stands motionless in the path of a falling front façade of a house and is unscathed because he stands directly in the position occupied by a window in the façade. Other works include his 1998 sculpture White Elephant and his 1999 work Current. The winning of the 1996 ICA Futures Award and the 1999 Turner Prize would place Steve McQueen at the pinnacle of British art and arguably beyond the confines of racial categorisation.
In the world of film media as a medium for artistic expression, the British film producer and conceptual artist Isaac Julien (b.1960) would also feature prominently. Born in London, Julien would graduate from St Martin’s School of Art in 1984, where he studied painting and fine art film. Julien would go on to found the Sankofa Film and Video Collective, which released his acclaimed film, Looking for Langston (1989) about the African-American poet Langston Hughes. Throughout his career Isaac Julien has received numerous plaudits from his peers; from his first feature film Young Soul Rebels (1991) to his three screen installation, Paradise-Omeros, inspired by Derek Walcott’s epic poem, and eventually to a Turner Prize nomination in 2001 for his films The Long Road to Mazatlán (1999) and Vagabondia (2000), both made in collaboration with the dancer and choreographer Javier de Frutos, Isaac Julien has become a major player in the British art scene.
Moving in the same orbit of black British artists, but with a completely different approach to his work was Chris Ofili. Born in 1968 in Manchester, England and like McQueen he also attended the Chelsea School of Art. After a period of study from 1988 to 1991 he attended the Royal College of Art until 1993. It is in this period that the British Council awarded Ofili a travel scholarship, which gave him the perfect opportunity to travel to Zimbabwe. Much like McQueen’s epiphany with the discovery of film as a medium for his work, it was here in Zimbabwe, that Ofili found the inspiration that would have a profound effect on his painting. The influence of ancient Zimbabwean cave paintings with their decorative dot rendered compositions would eventually find their way into Ofili’s art in works such as his 1996 piece Afrodizzia and his 1997 piece Blossom. His works would also begin to incorporate, his now trademark addition, elephant dung used variously as compositional elements and as supports to stand the works on. When asked about this about this unique approach to his art he said that this is a way of – quite literally – incorporating Africa into his work, while also saying “My project is not a PC project … It allows you to laugh about issues that are potentially serious.” Chris Ofili’s work has featured in two Royal Academy exhibitions promoted by Charles Saatchi, ‘Brilliant!’ in 1995 and ‘Sensation’ in 1997, and in 1998, Ofili also won the Turner Prize. Such achievements as Frank Bowling’s election as a Royal Academician in 2005, Steve McQueen winning the 1999 Turner Prize and Chris Ofili representing Britain at the last Venice Biennale only serve to highlight what, up until recently in British art history has not been acknowledged, and that is that British art history has a wider and far more diverse cultural history than it previously cared to acknowledge. This rich vein of creativity, previously corralled into a specialised ethnic ghetto, has been integral to the British art scene since the early part of the 20th century, thus confirming that while unique in their individual approaches these artists are certainly not ‘other’ or apart from the wider British art scene, they are in fact, innovators and ambassadors of British art around the world.
Representations of Blacks in British Art from the 17th – 20th Century
The Slave Trade evidences the presence of black people in Europe as far back as 1505 with a large influx of black people of between 140,000 – 170,000 arriving on slave ships from the so-called ‘Dark Continent’ at this time. With Britain being one of the major traders in this lucrative area, it would ensure the presence of black people in Britain would have a long history stretching back hundreds of years. From this time onwards the appearance of black people in European painting ranging from Renaissance works by artists such as Jan Gosseart to works by English artists such as Joshua Reynolds ensured an increasing proliferation and familiarisation of black images in art.
By the mid 18th century Britain was at the height of its powers and wealth, profiting from its leading role in the lucrative slave trade. The ever-growing art market in Britain from the turn of the 19th century through to the end of this period ran concurrently and was fed by the profits of this trade. During this time black people found themselves represented in a variety of guises ranging from caricature to heroic, historic to fictional and from anti-slavery to the exotic. It is clear that in the realm of artists models blacks were still as popular as they were in the days of the great German engraver and painter Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528); who used blacks as models in the 16th century. Then, as in the 17th century, blacks frequently appeared as servants, attendants or extras in crowd scenes, rarely occupying any positions of importance or even being named. This tendency to leave black characters anonymous, thus de-humanising them, proliferated in art to such an extent that there are still many extant pictures without identities for the black people in them. This was compounded by the fact that in most of these representations, black people had little or no control over how they were portrayed. There were of course some notable exceptions to this rule particularly in the 19th century, including the composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1875-1912), Prince Alamayou of Abyssinia (1861-79), photographed in 1868, the actor Ira Aldridge (1807-67), and Crimean war heroine Mary Seacole (1805-81), whose fame was such that they were depicted as themselves.
In such portraits the sitters were afforded a measure of majesty and dignity that suggested some degree of respect and recognition of them as fellow human beings, although in some cases the identity of the sitters and the attribution to the artist has, in recent times, been called into question. Notable examples such as the study of a black man painted by Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) around 1770 display such human qualities. This picture may be a portrait of one of Reynolds’s own black servants or perhaps a portrait of Francis Barber the Jamaican companion of Samuel Johnson the writer. In this unfinished portrait Reynolds makes no attempt to europeanise the physiognomy of the sitter. Rather than depict him in exotic or classical clothes, that would mark him out from the white Europeans, he is dressed in the garments of the day and has a defiant and proud look about his countenance. There is also the example of the painting called Portrait of a Negro Man, Olaudah Equiano. Olaudah Equiano at this time was the richest black man in Britain and a best selling author whose work is still in print to this day. As the title suggests, it is unclear not only whether this is a portrait of Olaudah, but also when it was painted, (1780’s?) and its previous attribution to Reynolds is now also in question.
So what is behind this need to associate one self with the acquisition of black people? To know the answer we need to go back still further to the 13th century and the rule of Frederick II the last of the great Holy Roman Emperors (d.1250). Frederick astonished his contemporaries because he was more like an oriental despot than a European king. He kept a menagerie of animals the likes of which had never before been seen in this part of Europe, such as elephants, tigers and so on – “In his brilliant court at Palermo he kept a harem, guarded by black eunuchs”. Indeed there was an abundant presence of black people at Frederick II’s court.
This kind of collecting was the perfect way to demonstrate the far-reaching powers and influence of Frederick II, while also demonstrating his wealth, because at this time in Europe most people had little knowledge of these mysterious parts of the world whence these animals and strange ‘animal-like people’ had originated from. Stories of strange lands and exotic creatures had been hinted at in Greek Myth with such animals often accompanying Bacchus’s entourage; demonstrating that this Greek god of wine had knowledge of the exotic lands and their peoples and by implication dominion over them. Moreover, it had been widely believed since ancient times that the human personality could be fathomed simply by comparisons in facial construction, indeed one of the most popular codified versions of this theory was published by Giovanni Battista della Porta in 1586 (De Humana Physiognomonia). It is in these ideas, permeating throughout Western European history that we can trace the origin and invention of exoticism and the co-opting of black people into this role that even to this day still has resonances.
With this knowledge we can see how, for example, in paintings such as Scene IV, The Toilette from Marriage à la mode series, c.1743 by William Hogarth (1697-1764), the black servant in the centre of the picture contributes to the prevailing attitude of white supremacy and dominance, while the black person on the floor conforms to the notion of being an exotic animal owned by the self-appointed civilised white people. By the 18th century these pseudo-scientific ideas regarding how black people should be seen by white Europeans were given ever more credence by writings such as the 1775 publication of Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beforderung der Menschenkenntnib und Menschenliebe by the Swiss pastor, Johann Casper Lavater. In his book Lavater not only looked at facial features, but also the mathematical angles of faces, and by his 4th volume he started to look at skin types. In one of his observations he describes an African man as being of ‘bowed aspect in the outline of his face the breadth of his eyes; the flatness of the nose; especially the great swollen expansive, tough lips; removed from all fineness and grace…’ To further consolidate these thoughts, Lavater believed and published, that a prominent nose indicated intelligence and a flat one stupidity. This timely publication cannot have failed to have an impact on Joshua Reynolds but not in a way that one might expect. When the Polynesian Omai arrived in England (14th July 1774) it was thought that this strange creature would provide the perfect opportunity for so-called ‘civilised Europeans’ to ‘scientifically’ study this ‘specimen’ to ascertain how he would relate and interact with white Europeans.
However, this experiment did not go quite the way the British had expected, because by the time of his arrival Omai not only had a rudimentary working knowledge of English, but despite what his English carers thought, he also turned out to be very sophisticated in his manners, knowing exactly how to behave in ‘polite society’. His fame duly spread to the point he was granted an audience with George III. At this audience he chose to wear a brown velvet coat with white waistcoat and grey satin breeches. Omai had clearly not conformed to the expectation of his English audience, so when it came to painting him, Reynolds could not represent such a sophisticated person mimetically with the attributes of so-called stupidity as described by Lavater. As Reynolds said in his 4th Discourse ‘it is very difficult to ennoble the character but at the expense of the likeness, which is what is generally required by such as sit to the painter’. The result was a compromise between the European invention of the exotic and European notion of classical nobility. Reynolds dresses Omai in a toga, europeanises his features, but prominently retains Omai’s tattoos. Throughout the 18th century the slave trade in Britain and America continued and the proliferation of images of black people in art continued, but voices of opposition to this inhuman trade in people were beginning to intensify. One of those notable in his opposition was at the time Britain’s most celebrated lawyer and also at the forefront of an influential group that were opposed to slavery.
William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield was at the centre of the landmark ruling of 1772 in which the runaway slave James Somerset was set free. But Lord Mansfield had his own personal reasons for supporting James Somerset, as his own great-niece, Dido Elizabeth (Belle) Lindsey was a black woman. Dido is famously captured in a double portrait, (attributed to Johann Zoffany, 1725-1810) hand-in-hand with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray in the grounds of Kenwood House. Yet even in this image associated with one of the leading abolitionists, care is taken to depict Dido as distinct and ‘other’ by giving her a supposedly exotic headdress. Despite the protestations against slavery and the popularity of Josiah Wedgwood’s (another leading abolitionist) image of the pleading black slave, with the motto: Am I not a Man and a Brother? (1787), slavery’s eventual abolition in the British Empire did not come until 1833, some 40 years after the death of William Mansfield.
The 19th century also saw the co-opting of black images into art for reasons of giving further credence to white European beliefs in phrenology. This new invention was nothing more than a re-working of Lavater’s 1775 theory regarding ‘racial types’. This theory claimed to be able to categorise people into lower, criminal and upper classes purely based on their physiognomy. Predictably black people fell easily in to the latter categories and paintings such as William Powell Frith’s (1819-1909) Derby Day further propounded these theories by including black people among the ‘criminal classes’. In fact the previous century saw the introduction in 1723 of the ‘Black Act’, which actually prohibited the common crime of people who would ‘black up’ their faces to commit crimes. Indeed, so firmly did these theories resonate with the general feeling of the day that a rail had to be put around Frith’s picture to keep the crowds back when it was first exhibited in 1858. While paintings such as The Beloved (`The Bride’), 1865-6 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) served only to reinforce notions that beauty could only be found in a white complexion and physiognomy by using the black person in the picture as a supposed comparison or contrast.
Yet throughout these aforementioned periods there is one missing factor in the depiction of black people, the presence of black artists. Although by 1772 there were around 15,000 black people living in London, and recent research shows that black people were also living in other cities and areas such as Liverpool Edinburgh and Kent by the 19th century at least, the one thing that all the surviving images of black people in Britain have in common is that they were all painted by white artists. There is evidence that black artist such as Robert Douglas (1809-87) and Robert Scott Duncanson (1817-72) visited London from America in the 19th century, but none of their works have surfaced. So it must be said that the picture that we have up to this point of black people in Britain, their experiences and what they may have been like as people is tainted by a Eurocentric perspective and thus cannot be anything but historically inaccurate.
It would not be until as late as the 20th century that black people would become established in their own right as artists in Britain. They would depict black people from quite a different perspective than artists of the previous centuries. These images would reveal for perhaps the first time the experiences of these real people, what they felt, what they thought and how they themselves felt white Europeans treated them. It is in this era that we would see black British artists explore issues never before understood by white Europeans. Issues such as race, ethnicity and the contemporary urban experience of black people would be explored by artists such as Sonia Boyce (b.1962). Her work executed in a variety of media includes works such as She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On, and From Tarzan to Rambo in which Boyce asks questions about the representation of race, colour and the legacy of centuries of cultural stereotyping of black people. Donald Rodney (1961-1998) would look at black masculinity and the self, asking questions regarding the stereotyping in contemporary culture of the young black man as ‘public enemy’ and the very embodiment of danger.
Some artists would explore the representation of the black image in art by using their own image in their work, such as Maud Sulter’s (b.1960) self-portrait photograph of the artist as Calliope, which formed part of a series of portraits of the nine muses of Greek mythology. The casting of black women in these roles made the viewer question the previously accepted conviction that such roles in Western European art were solely the reserve of white Europeans. While Rita Keegan (b.1949) would re-cast herself with her self-portrait homage to the Mexican artist Frieda Khalo (1907-1954) and Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen (b.1969) would re-cast the image of the black person in visual art with his own cameo inclusion in his video installations.
All this is a far cry from the majority of staged depictions of black people throughout the previous centuries that often made no connection with them as people leading real lives. indeed the artist Andrew Jefferson-Miles (b.1972) looks back to the early pioneers of black British art, such as Aubrey Williams (1926-1990) and Frank Bowling (b.1936), for his inspiration. In his exhibition of 2000 called In Odd Corners this Century: an Artist’s 20th century in 14 pictures Andrew Jefferson-Miles looked at his ‘natal continent’, South America and his ‘natal country’, Guyana where both Williams and Bowling were born. Jefferson-Miles gives the viewer representations of human suffrage working in a ‘cross-civilizationry dimension’ rather than from an exclusively European perspective.
Yet far from turning its back on old European traditions of black representation, British artists such as Turner Prize winner, Chris Ofili (b.1968) have embraced some of its more positive and sublime aspects. Re-inventing the old historical roots of painting, Ofili invokes religious iconography and creates a look of jewel-like encrustations in his work, while also looking at themes of black identity and culture. Ofili’s Upper Room display, exhibited at Tate Britian, 2005-6, is an arrangement of twelve canvases, supported on his now famous trademark elephant dung. They flank a larger thirteenth canvas in a specially designed chapel-like environment, which immediately suggests Christ and his twelve Apostles. Such a dilberatly designed environment could also be said to have some distant relationship with the possibly diliberatly design environment of the Arena Chapel in Padua housing Giotto’s famous frescoes, decorated between 1303-05. The repeated image of a rhesus macaque monkey in Ofili’s pictures raises questions of civilisation, nature, the religious and the secular, again from a world-centric perspective rather than a miopic European one.
It is these artists, working in Britain from the early 20th century to the present that would re-dress the centuries old imbalance of the black image in art, and it is these artists who would in turn be finally recognised and eventually acknowledged for their contribution to the story of art and the truthful historical representation of black people in British art.