Artists who fight racism – BBC Culture


Artists who fight racism

(Image credit: Tam Joseph / Wolverhampton Art Gallery)

The often harsh reality of West Indian and British life has been reflected in art over the decades. Precious Adesina explores remarkable works of art that reveal uncomfortable truths.


In Tam Joseph’s Spirit of the Carnival (1982), a masked performer dressed in a fiery yellow ensemble is surrounded by a sea of ​​riot police. The painting depicts a Sensay, a person in traditional Dominican masquerade costume, with outstretched hands as an angry dog ​​runs through the circle officers have formed around the man. Joseph remembers going to the Notting Hill Carnival with his parents growing up; the place was packed with friends, family, and people of Caribbean descent looking for something that reminded them of their culture. But it is the tension between the revelers and the police that imposed itself on him, inspiring this composition.

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With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement over the past two years, Joseph’s work feels like it could have been done today. However, the artist wants people to feel the excitement and vibrancy of Sensay, rather than being drawn into socio-political discourse.

Tam Joseph's The Sky at Night (1985) is among the works featured in Tate Britain's Life Between Islands exhibition. (Tam Joseph)

Tam Joseph’s The Sky at Night (1985) is among the works featured in Tate Britain’s Life Between Islands exhibition. (Tam Joseph)

But, wandering through Life Between Islands at Tate Britain, an exhibition of Caribbean-British art from the 1950s to the present day – where the painting currently hangs – it’s hard to ignore the works of art that conjure up conversations about race – discussions that are still as much today as they were 70 years ago. This is particularly the case after the Windrush scandal in 2018 and the global protests in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in the United States.

Alex Farquharson, gallery director and co-curator of the exhibition, alongside art historian David A Bailey, says he started working on Life Between Islands six years ago, before the two incidents. “Black people in Britain, including the artists in the exhibition, have often faced extreme hostility and societal discrimination,” he says, noting that he does not view Life Between Islands as deeply political. . “Some of the documentary photographs reflect this depressing reality and the courageous struggles against it, but there are just as many photographs in the exhibit from the 60s, 70s and 80s that convey creativity, joy, intimacy and community.”

Despite this, the relationship between black people and the police is apparent on several occasions, as is discrimination against black people in Britain, particularly during the time of Joseph’s paintings. “The early work of the black arts movement in the 1980s was often ruthless in confronting the contemporary realities of racism in Britain,” says Farquharson. This was particularly the case with the BLK Art Group, a collective of young black artists founded by Eddie Chambers in 1979. The curator points to Chambers’ The Destruction of the National Front (1979-1980), a four-part collage that sees the Union Jack transform into a swastika. “[It] embodies this early phase of the black arts movement,” he says. “It was at the height of the “popularity” of the National Front, which marched with impunity through the black and Asian communities.

“Police harassment of young black Britons was routine, unemployment very high and political rhetoric often incendiary – blacks and Asians were described as having ‘overwhelmed’ Britain by the Prime Minister at the time,” adds- he. “Pent-up anger boiled over in major riots or uprisings in Brixton, Toxteth and many other town centers in 1981.”

Spirit of the Carnival (1982) by Tam Joseph is a powerful portrayal of the Notting Hill Carnival. (Tam Joseph/ Wolverhampton Art Gallery)

Spirit of the Carnival (1982) by Tam Joseph is a powerful portrayal of the Notting Hill Carnival. (Tam Joseph/ Wolverhampton Art Gallery)

Isaac Julien’s documentary, Territoires (1984), made while Julien was still a student, examines the role of the media in the representation of carnival, using a montage of beautiful scenes alongside archival reports. “Music was dismissed as noise, dancing as…sexual misconduct and debauchery,” a narrator explains, before an interviewee explains how police presence at the 1976 carnival sparked uprisings. “The attitude of the police is an assault on the public address systems on [street] corners because they see any gathering of young black people as a threat,” the man said.

More recently, Barbara Walker’s drawings in the exhibition look at the misrepresentation and stereotypes of black communities, but from a more personal perspective. Louder than Words is a series created between 2006 and 2009 about Walker’s son, Solomon, which features copies of police records given to him while walking around their hometown of Birmingham, during court proceedings. stop and search in the UK (where police search members of the public). Drawings and paintings of his son or places where he was arrested are superimposed on these documents or newspaper articles. A title reads “In the wrong place at the wrong time”, alongside a detailed charcoal sketch of Solomon staring clearly at the viewer. “I was intrigued by the almost ritualistic stop and frisk procedure, but more importantly I wanted to make art about the appalling way my beloved son was treated,” Walker told BBC Culture. She believed that by arresting her son, the police had reduced him to a deviant. “Why should he be brutally treated, as if he were a convicted criminal?”

My Song (2006) by Barbara Walker is part of a series exploring the racial stereotypes of the artist's son. (Richard Wilson and Kelly Smith/ Barbara Walker)

My Song (2006) by Barbara Walker is part of a series exploring the racial stereotypes of the artist’s son. (Richard Wilson and Kelly Smith/ Barbara Walker)

Farquharson says the exhibit shows Britain has come a long way in treating black people, but not far enough. “Black people’s contribution to British culture is stronger, more visible and more celebrated than at any other time, particularly in recent years,” he says. “But the events of recent years have been powerful reminders that racial injustice continues, often invisibly to white Britons – Black Lives Matter has acted as a powerful wake-up call in this regard.”

The exhibition Life between the islands: West Indian and British art from the 1950s to today is at Tate Britain, London, until April 3

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