Black artists are looking beyond ‘protest art’ at UK shows


MARGATE, England – When artists Kelly Abbott and Victoria Barrow Williams learned that the Turner Contemporary Gallery was hosting an exhibition focusing on art related to the civil rights movement in the American South, they were puzzled.

“We thought they missed a trick by making it so Americanized,” Ms Abbott said in an interview. “There is a rich black British history here.”

So the two who are also the directors of people the collectivea Margate-based group supporting blacks and browns across Britain approached the museum with an idea for an additional exhibition to “We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South‘ – one that would be more in line with the artists’ experiences as black British women.

“We Will Walk” – which spans four rooms and includes 110 works – combines photos and music from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s with works by black artists in Alabama and other southern US states during that time and in the decades that followed. A third part, “place, space and who‘ features five large portraits of black women and girls living in the Margate area painted on the gallery walls by British artist Barbara Walker.

The exhibitions, on view at the gallery until September 6, offer multifaceted responses to the ongoing debates about how Britons view and understand both blackness and the work of black artists, at a time when Britain is being asked to do so calculate with its history of colonialism and slavery.

It remains unusual to see exhibitions dedicated to the work of Black artists in a mainstream gallery space like the Turner: Ms. Walker’s commission is the fourth in the museum’s nine-year history to highlight the work of a single Black artist.

When the Turner Contemporary Gallery closed in March due to the coronavirus, We Will Walk, which originally opened in February, and Place, Space and Who, which opened last September, were also closed. When the museum reopened on July 22, work was already underway on the Margate to Minneapolis installation, which opened on August 1. Ms. Abbott and Ms. Barrow Williams had proposed the idea for the exhibit just a few weeks earlier.

The museum opened in 2011 is is credited with speeding up the recent regeneration of Margatea poor seaside town popular with British holidaymakers in earlier centuries.

With “Margate to Minneapolis,” Ms. Abbott and Ms. Barrow Williams wanted to highlight the efforts of recent Black Lives Matter protests in Margate and nearby towns and encourage visitors to actively fight against systemic racism.

Many of the handcrafted signs – which hang from the ceiling and reflect the way protesters held them up – reference Britain’s history of anti-black racism, emblazoned with slogans such as “The UK is not innocent” and “Built on racism” next to the British flag. Video projected on a wall shows footage of the marches, and a large banner nearby lists the names of black people who have been killed by police in Britain.

Upon entering the room, visitors are asked to place a sticker on a poster indicating whether they would visit a local cultural center if it offered opportunities to learn more about black and brown people in British history. People Dem Collective raises money to open such a cultural center on Margate’s seafront.

“Art is often a vehicle for social progress,” said Ms Barrow Williams, adding that the Turner exhibition “shows the power of protest”.

We Will Walk also addresses broad themes of resistance, but on a different continent. Freeman Vines’ carved wooden guitarsmade from the wood of a tree in North Carolina from which blacks were lynched are on display, as is a collection of quilts made by black women in Gee’s Bendan isolated hamlet in Alabama and a former plantation where many of the quilters’ ancestors were enslaved.

The exhibition also features photographs by British artist Hannah Collins of other works by black artists from the American South. Ms Collins, who is white, co-curated We Will Walk with British curator and researcher Paul Goodwin, who is black.

Ms Collins says she hopes staging a UK exhibition of art linked to the US civil rights movement will help Britain deal with its own racist past.

“Slavery has a common past. Oppression has a common past,” she said in an interview. “If this story isn’t put together in some way, it’s of no use to anyone.”

Still, Ms. Walker said she did not engage in an act of protest as she drew the charcoal and chalk portraits that line the walls of the gallery’s lobby. “The space I want to reclaim is that of visibility,” she said. “With visibility comes value, and with value comes humanity.”

The drawings are accompanied by online audio recordings of the sitters expressing their feelings of belonging and exclusion in Margate, op majority white city. By depicting real Black women and girls, Ms Walker said she wanted to balance the dominance of whiteness in both Western art history and mainstream British history.

But the impulse to automatically label work by black or female artists as “political” limits the possible interpretations of a work, says Ms Walker. For color artists like her, this poses two difficulties.

“Personally, I feel like I’ve spent much of my career as an artist resisting the labels that the art world wants to label me,” she said.

Many artists have contested the tendency of art critics and the public to acknowledge the work of black artists primarily as tools of protest. Frank Bowlinga Guyana-born artist who has lived in London’s Pimlico borough for more than five decades, said he moved to New York in the mid-1960s, partly because his identity as a “Caribbean artist” in Britain came with restricted expectations.

“It seemed that everyone expected me to paint some kind of protest art from the post-colonial discussion,” he said said The Guardian in 2012.

Known as ‘protest art’, the genre became prominent in the mainstream discussions of black British art after the 20th century British Black Arts movement, launched in the 1980s by a generation of young black artists whose work explored anti-black racism and black feminism. These included a group of British Afro-Caribbean art students north-west of London who formed what later became known the BLK Art Group.

“We were all interested in how to make an art practice that is responsive to political ideas,” said Keith Piper, one of the founding members.

However, according to Mr. Piper and Marlene Smith, another member, members disagreed over how explicitly their work should be political.

“It’s important to me to make work that speaks to the times I live in, but I wouldn’t want to label my work as protest art,” Ms Smith said, adding that it’s not about “negating anything”.

Ms. Walker echoed those sentiments.

“I don’t do ‘protest art,'” she said. “I make art.”

For the People Dem Collective, creating art as a form of protest can nurture support for the Black Lives Matter movement and disrupt the hegemonic whiteness that has traditionally dominated both the Turner and British art worlds.

“To be able to protest in this art exhibition – in this institution,” said Ms. Barrow Williams, “is huge.”

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