Exhibition of the Year: No Colour Bar: Black Art in Action 1960-1990

by Hamja Ahsan   

There is an entire generation of us – of younger artists, aspiring art historians and curators of colour – who went to art school inspired by Rasheed Araeen’s attempts to readdress race equality and the imperialist legacy of British modern art institutions. We remained too young to visit landmark exhibitions like The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-war Britain (1989) at the Hayward Gallery, or the touring exhibitions curated by Lubaina Himid, Shaheen Merali and Eddie Chambers seeking to rearticulate the national picture, and could only salivate at out-of-print catalogues in academic libraries. The six-month exhibition No Colour Bar at the London Guildhall gallery felt like a real attempt to revitalise the spirit of that historical legacy for us: to pass it to future generations, where the world of activism, grassroots community and art were once in sync. This was the first time I remember being moved to the point of tears in a gallery space.

Curated around a recreation of the Bogle L’Overture bookshop, a radical publishing house formed by Black activist couple Eric and Jessica Huntley, this truly felt like art connected to the urgency of the streets, the decolonising supplementary school and the wider transnational movement for Black consciousness.  The curator Makeda Coaston adopted a non-hierarchical approach, treating book covers and written correspondence, flyers, record covers and posters on the same axis as works of art. Familiar faces like Darcus Howe and Walter Rodney appear in the bookshop installation video and poster archives, and less familiar histories such as the magazine ArtRAGE are projected like a visionary call to action above the bookshop. Here were the seeds of anti-Imperialist activism, the post-Windrush settlement and the fight against Apartheid at home and abroad in South Africa. Here was the swamp of new migrants invoked by Thatcher answering back in a riot of paint, sculpture, graphic design and oral history. The exhibition is accompanied by an ambitious array of events, talks and a volunteer programme, including a youth programme called Mountain High: Archive Deep.

With the formal collapse this year of the diversity organisation Iniva under the direction of Tessa Jackson at Rivington Place gallery (whose impressive post-colonial publishing programme collapsed many years earlier), this only felt more pertinent. A particularly poignant moment for me was to walk face-to-face with the Eddie Chambers painting urging the boycott of Barclaycard, the “financial backers of apartheid” in South Africa, later to be chief sponsor of the David Adjaye-designed Rivington Place building institution, housing the Stuart Hall library. What happened to the original radical spirit of the Black movement then?  But, more importantly, it provoked a deeper question: how much has the world changed?

Internationalism and mainstream racism has taken on new directions now. Palestine has replaced South Africa as the clarion call of International progressive solidarity. The Bosnian genocide and Rushdie affair of the 1990s created a distinct British Muslim political identity, unsettling not only the British nation-state but the Black diaspora art alliance itself. Challenges such as transnational Islamophobia, accelerated by the War on Terror, and an alarming form of surveillance state in the PREVENT programme, should make us reassess the place of the marginalised Muslim diasporic legacy in Black Art. Tam Joseph’s painting UK School Report (1983) featuring on a tricolore stereotype in a cartoonish style three young Black men with the captions “needs surveillance”/ “good at sports” / “good at music” seems poignant to reconsider in the age of the Trojan hoax and Charlie Hebdo. The task for our generation is to see what these legacies can teach us in the present crisis.

Significantly, the content of the exhibition ends in the year 1990. This is before Masters programmes in Curating and a new generation of over-professionalised gatekeepers. The approach to the artworks in this exhibition displays spontaneity, accessibility and intuition of punk, reggae and dub, where the line between professional artist and amateur remain blurred.  It can be witnessed in the drips of Frank Bowling’s abstract painting and the glittering riots of Chila Kumari Burman – sensual, punchy arguments against racist government policy. Within the art world, new economic centres would have sprung in shining neoliberal India, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sharjah, Istanbul and Gwangju, with the onslaught of post-1989 globalisation further unsetting the Asian bridge of the Black diaspora alliance. This year, 1990, should be considered the precipice of a cliff before we fell into the age of the transnational class of a new Pretentious Ethnic. Before every art world bookshop from Seoul to New York to Berlin to Istanbul was exactly the same, dominated by Continental European Theory and hipster faux-Leftism. This was a time before Zizeky-Deleuzeo-babble International Art English thought it could explain the entire the world. Before the grandiosity of verbose theory-essayists and “concept-engineers” such as the Otolith Group became darlings of White curators and the global institutional power elite. When one could speak and tell it like it is, directly to the experience of being an oppressed subject, without reference to Jacques Ranciere and what White-hipster-Frieze-Fair=pseudo-Leftism deemed fashionable to validate one’s point of view. When fighting oppression had a joie de vivre, tactility, sense of humour and colour.  Some of the names of the No Colour Bar exhibition have passed into an alternative British art canon: Sonia Boyce, Sokhari Douglas Camp, Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers, and Aubrey Williams. Some less  familiar such as poet, painter and printmaker John Lyons and Tam Joseph, invoking the carnivalesque spirit, can be reevaluated in this historical frame. This was the age before the prog-rock post-colonialism of Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 became the contemporary art orthodoxy.

No Colour Bar can be considered part of a series of exhibitions this year which looked at Black inclusion strategies beyond the bureaucratic form of Diversity Management. This stream of research uncovers how to situate white supremacism in the British mainstream within a wider historical frame. Smaller exhibitions, such as Shout Out! UK Pirate Radio in the 1980s at the ICA fox reading room and the touring Leicester Phoenix gallery, looked at how Black music can subvert authority and marginalisation,  through the legal recognition of Kiss FM and illegal dub and reggae stations. This year Islington museum also staged an exhibition based on the life of John La Rose, founder of New Beacon Press, titled Dream to Change the World; a centrepiece of the exhibition is a recreated kitchen table which represents an informal hub of political mobilisation. Another archival exhibition Re-Recordings: The African-Caribbean, Asian & African Art in Britain Archive at the tiny Chelsea space, situated opposite Tate Britain, featured ephemera from this era compiled by new Iniva director Melanie Keen and Chelsea art college librarian Liz Ward. No Colour Bar possesses the virtues and provokes the same question of this series of smaller exhibitions, and can, in tandem with new institutions such as Black Cultural Archives, be considered part of this current stream of historical reevaluation of the history of race relations in the arts.

At a panel discussion for the exhibition featuring Eddie Chambers and Errol Lloyd and chaired by Sonia Dyer, the question arose: should more attention be paid to formalism of qualities such as brushwork and composition, rather than the political and historical context of the world? During his talk Chambers derided institutions such as the New Art Exchange in Nottingham as “abnormal” and voluntary African self-identification as essentially “constraining”. Arun Kundnani, perhaps the best commentator on post-9/11 racism today, reminded us however of this contemporary regressive tendency where more venom was aimed at various attempts to readress exclusion than at the actual problems of White Supremacy, eurocentrism and institutional racism. The question posed by Dyer seemed staged in an age when white curators themselves no longer connect with the formalist criticism of British modernist champions Herbert Read and Clive Bell, who argued for an art free of all social and political responsibility.  But the selection of artworks in this exhibition showed how formalism and straight talk were not necessarily mutually exclusive. The exhibition was a rich opportunity to see how modernist forms associated with Cubism and futurism, such as in the paintings of Errol Lloyd, could enrich an anti-racist stance.

No Colour Bar shows us that the Black arts movement could simply be a better way of doing things. That is to say, where bridging of alliances of all oppressed groups and the poetic of demands for equality, organic to actual social movements rather than the biennalised 1% within the vacuum of the “universal” Liberal White art world, can effectively take place. This was an archival show with the fire of life, the air of authenticity and the buzz of a multi-generational community.  Niru Ratnam’s 2010 attempt to restage remnants of Rasheed Araeen’s landmark show in A Missing History: ‘The Other Story’ Re-visited felt like a cold commercial enterprise in comparison. For this reason, this remained for me the most essential and inspiring exhibition of the year. The spirit of the Huntleys lives on.

Visit No Colour Bar: Black Art in Action 1960-1990 – Guildhall Gallery 10 July 2015 – 24 January 2016

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Hamja Ahsan is an activist, artist and curator. He co-founded the DIY Cultures festival. and Other Asias collective. He was shortlisted a Liberty Human Rights award for Free Talha Ahsan campaign His book Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Introvert Militant (Bookworks) is due out in 2016.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated  edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam and edited  by Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj.  A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

 

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5 replies

  1. Great article, thank you for the considered and insightful reflections. No Colour Bar was such a pleasure to visit, a vital contribution to making visible how art and politics might be enacted through community action. This felt almost palpable in the space when moving between letters, book jackets audio excerpts and paintings. I particularly appreciated how this article draws a line between Bogle L’Overture and contemporary discussions on race, racism, art and activism – reactivating what might otherwise be relegated to the archive. I had a few questions about the curatorial decisions around the show – I found Michael Mcmillan’s installation of the bookshop cumbersome to navigate. Whilst the audio recordings, texts and images within the installation were incredibly moving, the mediation of these through the clunky interactive screens was disappointing. Referring more to the heavy hand of the institution than the lightness and defiance of a self organised space. As the writer states it was very special to see so many fantastic artworks that as younger artists we’ve sought out through books brought together in one space – Eddie Chambers, Tam Joseph and Chila Kumari Burman. I would have liked to have seen even more works from this period that ventured into other mediums such as moving image but perhaps that’s a good reason to make sure this exhibition has a follow up … Tate, Whitechapel, Raven Row et al, listen up.

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  2. This is the best review of this exhibition I’ve read, it’s really powerful. I appreciate that you contextualise it in terms of social movements and links to other exhibitions. Also, I greatly admire Eddie Chambers but did think parts of that discussion were problematic and it was interesting to hear Sonia Dyer (author of ‘Boxed In’) disagreeing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really interesting and well written review with brilliant context to the exhibition and it’s place within the UK. I plan to visit the exhibition directly due to this article.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Such a powerful, emotive article, thank you! I’m so glad someone has written such a moving review for the most moving, beautiful exhibition I have been to in recent years. I really hope that this exhibition paves the way for more exhibitions like it in the future, that challenge the white spaces and structures of art institutions, and capture the histories and lives of people like Eric and Jessica Huntley.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This was an excellent and informative article written by Mr. Ahsan. I look forward to seeing more of his work on Media Diversified at a later date.

    Liked by 1 person

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