Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 8, 2018
Sophie Orlando British Black Art: Debates on Western Art History Paris: Dis Voir, 2016. 128 pp.; 30 color ills.; 15 b/w ills. Paperback $24.00 (9782914563765)

“It would be a mistake to emphasize only the socio-political determinants of mass emigration and not to fully understand the actual aims of individual artists who left their countries of origin simply to fulfill their artistic ambitions abroad. We should also recognise the peculiarity of these ambitions, which are not fulfilled merely by a success in the market-place but by the artist’s entry into the history of art.”

—Rasheed Araeen, The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-war Britain (London: South Bank Centre, 1989)

Sophie Orlando’s British Black Art: Debates on Western Art History makes an important contribution to the story of contemporary British art. Published nearly thirty years after the close of The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-war Britain, Orlando’s project echoes that exhibition’s aims and seeks to return the visual production of artists in Britain to the wider critical contexts of Western art history. It is important to note that Orlando works with and from the framework of “political blackness” that underpinned coalitions and collaborations of nonwhite artists across national and ethnic lines living and working in Britain during the 1980s. Although in more contemporary discourses and debates this wider formation of black identities has narrowed to mirror more closely an American usage, rooted in African diaspora rather than the networks of Empire, it forms a central part of the works considered here. Moving beyond the dominance of sociopolitical issues in popular readings of works by artists including Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid, Chila Kumari Burman, and Eddie Chambers, Orlando undertakes the task of producing an art history that recognizes the works’ aesthetic, historical, and intellectual significance. It is important to note here that the important contributions Chambers has made to the practice, curating, and scholarship of British black art would have received significant attention in this review, not least because Orlando engages directly with his work throughout her book. However, because Chambers is the field editor for African and African diaspora art, I will leave it to others to assess those contributions elsewhere.

For the most part, Orlando is successful, and the book comes to life in the sections that maintain a sharp focus on her task and on the artworks. Looking to Lubaina Himid’s Freedom and Change (1984), in a chapter titled “Deconstructing and Rethinking the Positions of 20th Century Western Art,” Orlando puts forward a nuanced reading of a now-emblematic artwork—recently exhibited prominently in Lubaina Himid: Invisible Strategies (Modern Art Oxford), one of three major exhibitions to feature Himid’s work in 2017—of what has come to be known as the British black arts movement. Orlando moves beyond the well-rehearsed narrative that binds the work up with—and boxes it into—the politics of Thatcherism. This is not to say that Orlando elides the importance of politics within the work, replacing one half-story with another. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, the rise of the far right, and the leftist politics of anti-racism all loom large in the background. Here, though, Orlando brings the critical tools of art history, as an academic and intellectual discipline, to bear on an artwork that is complex, multifaceted, and emphatically though not exclusively political.

Orlando also resists the popular urge to perform a form of art-historical corrective surgery—opening up the canon at the seams to insert marginalized artists into a fixed genealogy. In her examination of Freedom and Change, for example, she reassesses the work’s frequently discussed relationship with Pablo Picasso’s Two Women Running on a Beach (1922). Looking first to Himid’s engagement with Picasso as a progenitor of Primitivism, her attentions turn to unravel the complexities woven into both artists’ careful research into the histories and theories of form and figuration. These preoccupations echo through an elegant comparison of body politics in works by Sonia Boyce and Sarah Lucas, which forms a substantial part of a chapter entitled “Artistic Tactics and New Internationalism.” Here Boyce’s hair works, especially Three Legs Stuffed with Hair (1995), are put into dialogue with contemporaneous works by Lucas to sketch out a polyvalent and multifocal feminist project of the early 1990s. Putting into play a Heinrich Wölfflinian “action of picture upon picture,” Orlando opens up networks of exchange that broaden existing narratives around the politics and histories of the representation of raced and gendered bodies (Heinrich Wölflinn, Principles of Art History, 7th ed. [New York: Dover, 1950], 230). These works are not sutured onto the corpus of the canon; rather they are situated as participants within the wider critical debates at the center of recent art histories.

Despite a recent surge of academic and institutional interest in British black art, and especially the constellation of artists and artworks  that have come to be known as the British black arts movement, this is an art history that is still fragmented. Several excellent recent publications, including art historian Kobena Mercer’s Travel and See: Black Diaspora Art Practices since the 1980s (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), have provided invaluable contributions to the stories of black art and black artists in Britain. However, in a field that is still grossly underserved by art-historical research, each contribution to the historical record comes with high stakes—and unfortunately, Orlando misses several important opportunities. This becomes particularly noticeable in the first chapter, titled simply “British Black Art.” Here the author relays the historical context of the eponymous label and lays out her terminology. However, perhaps in an eagerness to get on with the important business of critical discourse, she flattens some of the complexities of constructing and defining black art and the still-tenuous labeling of the British black arts movement. For example, she argues for 1982 as the beginning of black art in Britain, asserting that the term was originated at the First National Black Art Convention. However, she then goes on to write incisively about key works that predate the convention, including Araeen’s early works Jheel Park (1974) and Paki Bastard (1977). A mention of Black Art an’ Done: An Exhibition of Work by Young Black Artists, organized by an early formation of the Blk Art Group, including among others Keith Piper and Dominic Dawes and exhibited at Wolverhampton Art Gallery during the summer of 1981, seems to further confound Orlando’s time frame. As Boyce, Ian Baucom, and David A. Bailey wrote in their introduction to the edited collection Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), beginnings are unstable things.

In the same chapter, however, Orlando offers an insightful and timely redefinition of black art in a British context. Here again, it is when dealing with the artwork itself that she is at her best. Looking to Himid’s Thin Black Line(s): Moments and Connections (2011), produced as part of a Tate restaging of the key exhibition The Thin Black Line (1985), Orlando asserts that “British Black Art . . . is a generator of an art world” (p 23). She unyokes her examination of black art from the notion of a unified aesthetic style or a symptom of an artist’s diasporic experience to open up a framework of black art as a discursive space within the British art scene. This is a political space “for artists belonging in minority groups in Britain within which art and art history can be discussed” (p 19).She moves beyond the well-rehearsed debates of who can be considered “black” (which, within a British context, hinges primarily on the rise and fall of notions of “political blackness”) and pursuant questions about race, ethnicity, and intent. In this way, she produces a valuable framework that can be applied to a wide range of works from the postwar period and beyond.

Despite the scope for engagement opened up by this formation of black art, Orlando’s project sticks close to the artists regarded as being at the core of the British black arts movement. Though Orlando moves away from the well-documented early works of Boyce and Chila Burman, looking to those made in the 1990s and later, the emphasis remains squarely on artists with firmly established ties to the milieu of the 1980s. This is not a criticism of Orlando’s project. Rather, it is a reminder that this book represents an important contribution to a still-emerging field. The art-historical reassessment of works that, to return to The Other Story, are too often packed away as visualizations of the “socio-political determinants of mass emigration,” is an active and growing area of research (Araeen, 1989). In her concise prose (though in translation from the original French, which produces some slippages), Orlando provides a rigorous critical engagement with key artworks and builds upon the foundations laid in the 1980s by the artists, writers, critics, and curators of the British black arts movement. By attending to the work—a mantra for the Arts and Humanities Research Council–funded Black Artists and Modernism project in which she is involved—in British Black Art: Debates on Western Art History, Orlando drives forward the pursuit of a comprehensive art history of black art in Britain and British art more broadly. 

Elizabeth Robles
British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Contemporary Art, Department of History of Art, University of Bristol