Sunday, 14 February 2016

No MORE Colour Bar

Personal Insight: Read the closing thoughts of Yaa Asantewa on the No Colour Bar exhibition, movement and RAP party - from 

The photos in this post are credited to Eddie Osei. They beautifully capture the energy at the last major event of the No Colour Bar Exhibition, the RAP Party and Late View - Friday 22nd January.

It begins with a seedling that takes root then spreads. Spreads, not like a marauding vine but the spark that inspires. Creativity cannot be contained. It thrives and seeks to reproduce. Its aim is expansion and transformation. 

The seedling is formed in a sub region – if it was literal that would be deep in the earth. But the sub-region I speak of here is imagination. Someone birthed the idea, shared it and so it became uncontainable. Humility or maybe the secret making of things – the way magic occurs, means we might never know where the genius of the idea first took root. It doesn’t matter. The nod is to acknowledge the power of a single idea that knows it must spread for its magic to manifest. 

The No Colour Bar Exhibition has come and apparently gone. It doesn’t seem fair, if real, that it is over. If you didn’t get to see the exhibition you missed something special. Reason enough to find some way to insist on another chance. Yet, a repetition won’t do. If what you missed was special and possible, then why not demand more. This more would be no mere encore, but expansive, transcending the limitations of the bar that kept the ‘secret’ hidden. Margaret Andrews’ parting dedication at the RAP party on Friday 22nd January reminded us that representation and showcasing of Black British Art has been just that – a secret. If one doesn’t know this secret, one assumes there’s nothing to know, let alone show. 

Dr Andrews, Chair of Friends of the Huntley at London Metropolitan Archives (FHALMA) was serious when she admonished white establishment for failing to be more inclusive when it comes to cultural representation that reflect diversity in the UK. In other words, the ‘secret’ is deliberate. Many of the brilliant artists appear obscure, as though they’re new discoveries. The truth is that they have lacked exposure. ‘Shame on you,’ she told those in the industry who have the means to direct the way our society is reflected, but who make of art a privilege enjoyed by the few.

We know that what we saw during the six month Exhibition was a moderation of the immense works of art being produced by Black Artists in the UK.
From the seedling, one can tell much went into organising the exhibition, bringing about the fruit of success. Pride and tears combined at the RAP party, when the organisers praised one another’s hard work: the artists, volunteers, the collaborative efforts of FHALMA, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), The Guildhall Art Gallery (GAG) and associates of each organisation. The exhibition benefitted from funds from the Lottery Heritage, but it was really the collective effort of all involved that created the magic. 

Michael McMillan, one of the Curators, who designed the installed book shop, expressed that he was tired, and it was no gesture. Like others, the work was hard, even those who were paid for ‘working’ on the exhibition did much more than that – so that all were in fact volunteers. It would not have worked otherwise. Yet it could have. For unlike mainstream exhibitions, the artists loaned their work to the No Colour Bar for free. If we insist on their being more, for the bar to be removed then this draining of resources, this liberty which we know is often taken of artists, particularly of black artists has to stop. The organisers were grateful for the artists’ generosity, that was clear. But they knew it wasn’t fair, nor was it the general order of things. For the sake of unveiling the secret, so that we could embrace the magic, for now this had to be the way it was done. In the spirit of the activism that inspired the works in this exhibition we must collectively demand the change.

The seedling had its own seedling. Eric and Jessica Huntley were dedicated to social justice and recognised in this the value and significance of culture. Their activism was all inclusive – political struggle could not be separate from cultural development. The bronze bust of Jessica Huntley at the entrance to the exhibition looked on with pride at what their activism, spanning over 50 years, have led to. Of course, they were not alone. Bogle L’Ouverture publishers was co-founded by them and others in 1968. McMillan’s installation of the book shop charmingly conveyed the spirit of those times when undiscovered writers, young African/black people seeking knowledge about themselves and wanting education without discrimination gathered there to express themselves and learn. Thanks to the Huntley’s archiving, knowing that those details some of us might otherwise take for granted would one day really matter, we could experience a little of their world and times. The large map of London area spread across the centre table in the book shop spoke of a forgotten, even lost era, when one could find other book shops and cultural hubs that met the needs of Black people in London. Few remain. 

Eric Huntley expressed joy at the numbers who turned out to the party. Tiredness coupled with humility showed on his face. He seemed enchanted by the portrait of him by Ebun Culwin, unveiled at event. The artist said it was not possible to portray him without his wife Jessica somewhere in the frame. It showed a man, quiet with wisdom and poised for more, if lighter work. He was humbled, as he knew Jessica would be too, and overwhelmed. 

He had invited tributes from artists – poets like John Agard, storytellers, Like Mark Mathews – with warming tales beautifully expressed in his Guyanese accent; grandson Asante who did a rap piece seemed nervous, maybe not from having to perform in front of the crowd, but (subconsciously) knowing that his grandparents made the gathering possible. I enjoyed Alan Cooper’s, ‘to dream the impossible dream’ which captured the spirit of the exhibition beautifully.

There will be a digital tour of the exhibition across the UK and beyond. It won’t be quite the same but will still need our support. I came away thinking how marvellous it would be as, Margaret Andrews urged, to invest in a work of art by Black artists. This she directed at those who might have the means to do so instead of investing in the latest model of car! I have the feeling that Jessica Huntley will not be resting in ‘mourning silence’ but is right now, somewhere in the midst working her magic, such wonders we’ve yet to see.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Denzil Forrester

Police in a Van, Oil painting on board, 1982
Artistic Insight: On 11 January 2016, the Guildhall Art Gallery will be hosting a talk by Denzil Forrester, one of the exhibiting artists at No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990.  A dynamic painter, Forrester rose to prominence in 1980s Britain, depicting all areas of late-twentieth century London life – from dance halls and carnivals to the deeper nuances of urban society.  To tie in with his talk, this article explores his artistic history and style. To reserve FREE tickets for the talk, click here

Forrester was born in Grenada in 1956, moving to Britain with his family, aged ten. He was one of a handful of artists to graduate with an MA in Fine Art (Painting) from the Royal College of Art, after studying at the Central School of Art and has had a dynamic career at home and abroad, currently lecturing at Morley College.

Denzil Forrester’s kinetic and vibrant paintings evoke soundscapes, dance halls and the urban life of London. His bold forms overwhelm his canvases, building up rich tapestries of movement and kaleidoscopic light. His paintings, often stricken with strobe, evoke pulsating masses of people and movement, notably imaging the 1970/80s emergence of dub music and dance in London.
While his work evokes the undulating shadows and limbs of the Harlem Renaissance or the vivid prismatic angles of German Expressionism, Forrester’s distinct style bares witness to the vibrancy of Black British culture in the 1980’s. His large-scale works confront the senses and evoke memories of music, are best seen in situ – photographs do their dynamism little justice.  

Whilst Denzil envisages electrifying scenes, encapsulating the temporal and ephemeral space of young Londoners, he also subtly images the social tensions of the time. ‘Police in a Van’, a oil painting on board (1982), originally featured in a 1994 exhibition at The Storey Institute, Lancaster, called ‘Us an’ Dem’, exploring the tense relations and anxieties between the police force and the Black community.  This dark and voyeuristic painting shows a distorted aerial view of police officers in a van, their angular and furiously scribbled cobalt blue legs jutting into the centre of the painting, drawing attention to the shadowed figure flattened on the floor. Forrester creates a painting rich with psychological intensity, the faces of the subjects blurred or concealed, focusing on the brute force of the police and the submission of the body. This painting, however, does not suggest a particularly unusual scene.  The police drive forward, focused on the road and the police legs are uniform and regular, save the raised foot in the upper left-hand portion that jarringly reveals the true violence of the painting. What is haunting about this piece is the form in the centre, faceless and completely flattened, so much so it could be mistaken for a shadow. Forrester’s ability to lend his bold use of colour and light to such works exploring police brutality as well as the liveliness of the urban musicality evince Forrester’s complexity of theme and characterisation that has extended throughout his career.

In 1983 Forrester was awarded a scholarship to visit Rome and cites this as influential in his exploration of colour and light. One work produced during this period is Roman Fountain, oil on canvas, evincing his iridescent acknowledgement of light within his work
s, as autonomous as colour or form. As suggested by Eddie Chambers, his work also betrays an affinity to the kinaesthetic animation of colour of Italian Futurism – though it seems that Denzil had established this style before a possible exposure in his time in Italy.

Roman Fountain, Oil on board, 1984
Denzil Forrester will be talking at the Guildhall Art Gallery from 12.30 – 2.30pm on Monday 11 January 2016. To reserve FREE tickets to this event, click here.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Caribbean Artist Movement

Artistic Insight: Read about the Caribbean artist movement, their formation and aims.

The Caribbean Artist Movement (CAM) was a London-based creative grouping formed of writers, artists, filmmakers and musicians of Caribbean heritage that formed in 1966. Artists from the exhibition who were a part of this cultural initiative include the likes of Winston Branch, Aubrey Williams, Ronald Moody, Errol Lloyd. The movement illustrates the cultural cross-over of the time and the attempt of Black Artist’s, grouped through commonality but not defined by their heritage, to assert themselves in the visual sphere.
Errol Lloyd, The Lesson, 1972, Oil on canvas

From 1947 onwards, following WW2, there was an influx of migrants from various Caribbean islands.  Desiring to study, responding to the post-war labour shortage and the economical depression of the West Indies, the migrants came from all social spheres and backgrounds. England offered an opportunity for these individuals to interact, unrestricted by distance and geography. Despite the wildly disparate cultures, traditions and social and political structures of the different West Indian nations, migrants were often united in this foreign England. Wishing to establish their creative positions, and Caribbean- African heritage, in a new cultural environment, CAM was formed.

Writers John La Rose, Edward Kamau Braithwaite  and Andrew Salkey were two of the principle founders of the movement. Salkey was extensively published by Bogle –L’Ouverture Publications and was a close friend of the Huntley’s, who too were members of CAM. As well as grouping together artists, amalgamating skill and creativity, CAM wished to offer a reassessment of West Indian art of all forms, offering a critical framework that was more appropriate than the prevailing European tradition. The Caribbean artist movement, in its inception, often reflected backwards to its Caribbean heritage in various forms, but as time went on and a  new Black British identity emerged.

The CAM works in the No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990 demonstrates the initiative of Black creative individuals to organise themselves and create an artistic space for themselves and their work in society arguably constrained by
racial assumptions and academic limitations. The Caribbean Artist Movement is also crucial in the overall understanding of Black cultural practices of the time as it demonstrates the dialogue between various mediums and practices, how word and image were closely related and combined in order the strengthen the themes and transmission of ideas.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Justice for Walter Rodney

(Words belong to the Walter Rodney Campaign) 

One Last Push for 1K signatures! Extended to Tues.10th Nov.
Part of Bogle L’ouverture’s genesis, Dr Walter Rodney’s name, work and image remain pivotal to FHALMA’s work and legacy. Yet successive Guyana governments try to expunge Rodney from Guyana's history. 
The new Guyana government, right now, continues to efface the work of the first Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry  into Dr Rodney's 1980 assassination. They seek to frustrate the proper completion of this - or any real inquiry, while more key witnesses die, records disappear, evidence degrades. And we forget?

That's why we started this petition. Will you take 30 seconds to sign it right now? Here's the link with further information.
One Last Push for 1K signatures! Extended to Tues.10th Nov.
We seek your urgent support for our campaign to salvage some justice for this distinguished son of Africa, educator and author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. It is crucial to raise the profile of the Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry into Dr Rodney's assassination as the last chance to secure vital historic records - before its too late, and remind the Guyana government that Rodney's legacy matters, beyond Guyana.

Requesting your Prompt Action

The new Guyana government continues to efface the work of this Commission of Inquiry into Rodney's assassination by denying the two more weeks it requested to properly complete its work. They seek to frustrate the proper completion of any real inquiry, 35 years on, while more key witnesses die, records disappear, evidence degrades. And we forget.

That's why we started this petition. Will you take 30 seconds to sign it right now? Here's the link with further information. 

We'd also be grateful if you would urgently circulate to students and social justice contacts. 

Thank you,

Justice for Walter Rodney Campaign

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Artistic Insight: Uzo Egonu

Artistic Insight: Layla Gatens is a recent graduate of the University of East Anglia, studying History of Art and Anthropology. Here she explores Uzo Egonu and his work, Portrait of a Guinea Girl

Uzo Egonu, Portrait of a Guinea Girl,  1962, Oil on Canvas 
The internationally renowned modern painter, Uzo Egonu, explored the relationship between painting and sculptural forms, fusing his western and non-western influences to evoke a different kind of modernism. Painting at a time when the anti-colonial struggle was gaining momentum, Egonu’s work came to negotiate political themes of domination, racism and oppression. No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960- 1990 feature’s a rare and exciting example of Egonu’s figurative work; Portrait of a Guinea Girl (1962).

Egonu’s Portrait of a Guinea Girl (1962) explores the artist’s nostalgic feelings towards his homeland, whilst marking a crucial moment in the development of his personal aesthetic. Egonu’s oil painting depicts a young, Guinean girl, dressed in traditional West African outfit with a matching head dress and jewellery. The girl, with a neutral expression, leans forward with her arms crossed. The rigid pose, powerful graphic style and vivid colours draw similarities with Gaugin’s female subjects in his paintings of Tahiti in 1891-1892. 

After moving from Nigeria to England at the age of 14, Egonu studied painting and printing at Camberwell School of Arts until 1951. Graduating in an era of increasing cultural awareness, the global opposition to imperialism became crucial to the young artist’s process of cultural self-definition. This period of anticipation and political excitement led Egonu to spend much of his time in the offices of the West African students union. Like the Walter Rodney Bookshop that inspired the No Colour Bar exhibition, this provided young migrant students such as Egonu with “a place to read newspapers, engage in long discussions about the times and generally feel at home”. (Oguibe, 2004: 61)

In 1952, Egonu travelled Europe to expose himself to major works from the renaissance, cubism and surrealism, as well as those from Africa. During this period, Egonu was also engaging with the philosophy of the Negritude movement, which encouraged a common racial identity for Africans worldwide, and emphasized nostalgia as the core of their philosophy. After initially struggling to give form to his new conceptual and cultural ideas, Egonu’s creative crisis was solved by the route of memory and recollection, leading him to produce Portrait of a Guinea Girl - a celebratory, heroic portrait of an African female. The image romanticizes, valorises and reclaims the notion of ‘home’, positioning the girl as the embodiment of a future ‘Mother Africa,’ a vision of the beauty and potential of the African continent. With this view, Portrait of a Guinea Girl thematically and conceptually alludes to the 1945 poem Femme Noir, by negritude writer Léopold Sédar Senghor:

Naked woman, black woman
Clothed with your colour which is life, with your form which is beauty
In your shadow I have grown up; the gentleness of your hands was laid over my       eyes.                                                                   
And now, high up on the sun-baked pass, at the heart of summer, at the heart of noon,
I come upon you, my Promised Land,
And your beauty strikes me to the heart like the flash of an eagle.
 -        Extract from Femme Noire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, 1945

Portrait of a Guinea Girl marks the beginning of Egonu’s crucial link with ‘home’, a theme that continues throughout his body of work.  Egonu continued to assert his African background with forms of European modernism, and in turn achieved an expression that was committed to his identity as an African artist in Britain, as well as his socio-political vision. Through his painting, Egonu confronted the barriers between Western and African art, and went on to overcome the processes of exclusion that made British galleries and exhibition spaces inaccessible to artists of non-European descent. By the 1960’s Egonu was a revered leader of the avant-garde scene in London.

See Uzo Egonu’s work, as well as many other seminal artists at the 'No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 - 1990' exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 24th January 2016.

-        Layla Gatens