To coincide with both Black History Month in the United Kingdom and the internationally renowned Frieze art fair, there are a staggering seven exhibitions by black artists—plus a historical-archive showcase presenting formerly unseen photographs of black people in Victorian Britain—currently showing in London.
Previously unthinkable in what was once a notoriously conservative, painfully homogeneous and dolefully Eurocentric art world, we appear to be seeing the emergence of a critical mass of black visibility in art’s highest echelons, and hence at last are witnessing an exponential demand for serious black art in Europe.
Headlining at a combination of private and public galleries across London right now—and during the most prestigious few weeks in the global art calendar, to boot—are the following exhibits, along with excerpts of descriptions from their galleries.
1. Steve McQueen at the Thomas Dane Gallery
British artist and filmmaker McQueen is principally known for his films Hunger, Shame and the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. The exhibition “Steve McQueen: Ashes,” according to the Thomas Dane Gallery, “presents two new works. The first, entitled Ashes, 2014, is installed as an immersive projection with sound. It was shot on Super8 film with a haunting verbal soundtrack, recently recorded in Grenada. Much of the footage dates from 2002 and was taken by the legendary cinematographer, Robbie Muller. The deceptively simple film was commissioned by Espace Louis Vuitton, Tokyo and shown there earlier this year. At No. 11, we will be showing an entirely sculptural installation ‘Broken Column’, which acts as a pendant to ‘Ashes’.”
2. Rotimi Fani-Kayode at Tiwani Contemporary
“Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989)” is a solo retrospective of the work of this seminal figure in 1980s black British and African contemporary art. “Fani-Kayode’s photographic portraits explore complex personal and politically-engaged notions of desire, spirituality and cultural dislocation. They depict the black male body as a focal point both to interpret and probe the boundaries of spiritual and erotic fantasy, and of cultural and sexual difference. Ancestral rituals and a provocative, multi-layered symbolism fuse with archetypal motifs from European and African cultures and subcultures—inspired by what Yoruba priests call ‘the technique of ecstasy’. Hence Fani-Kayode uses the medium of photography not only to question issues of sexuality and homoerotic desire, but also to address themes of diaspora and belonging, and the tensions between his homosexuality and his Yoruba upbringing.”
3. Glenn Ligon at Camden Arts Centre
Ostensibly addressing the twin topics of race and language, “Call and Response”—Ligon’s first exhibition in a U.K. public gallery—“presents a new series of large paintings based on the 1966 seminal taped-speech work, Come Out, by Minimalist composer Steve Reich. Come Out is drawn from the testimony of six black youths arrested for committing a murder during the Harlem Race Riot of 1964. Known as the ‘Harlem Six’, the case galvanised civil rights activists for a generation, bringing to attention police brutality against black citizens. Echoing Reich’s overlapping repetition of words and phrases, Ligon’s silkscreen paintings overlay the words to create slowly shifting and rhythmic effects. …
“A new multi-screen video work uses footage of comedian Richard Pryor’s 1982 stand-up performance Live on Sunset Strip. The recorded material has been reorganised and refilmed to emphasise Pryor’s emphatic body language, movement and expressions, removing articulated words to focus on body language and the performative delivery of speech.”
4. David Hammons at White Cube
This humorously provocative survey of new and recent works—Hammons’ first major gallery show in London—sees him offering a mordant commentary on the position of African Americans within the dominant artistic culture and injecting some much-needed sociological satire into the tropes of conceptual art.
The gallery describes one section of the show this way: “In this series, the artist has draped a tarp or plastic sheet scavenged from the street over a canvas painted in a lush Abstract Expressionist style. The tension between distressed material and the abstract forms of the partially concealed surface beneath yields a mysterious formal beauty. Here, high abstraction is crossed with street culture, and the purity of the picture plane is interrupted by the lo-fi cover. The use of the cover also endows these two-dimensional works with a strong physical presence, blurring the line between painting and sculpture. These hybrid compositions stand in ambiguous, and perhaps critical, dialogue with European Modernism. At the same time, by turning on the polarities of visibility and invisibility, perception and omission, insider and outsider, they can be read as veiled commentaries on racial politics, art history, and misrecognition.”
5. Kerry James Marshall at David Zwirner
For “Kerry James Marshall: Look See,” his first show at Zwirner, “Marshall will present new paintings that collectively examine notions of observing, witnessing, and exhibiting. While central to the relationship between viewer and artwork, these overarching concepts are typically steeped in conventions that render them passive acts. Yet, Marshall’s works subtly defy genre expectations and invite idiosyncratic, often ambiguous interpretations. Entitled Look See, the exhibition takes its point of departure in the etymological difference between looking and seeing, which embodies varying degrees of attentiveness. While ‘looking’ is generally understood to be a removed, detached action, ‘seeing’ involves perception and making connections between elements.”
6. Wangechi Mutu at Victoria Miro
“Nguva na Nyoka” (which means "Sirens and Serpents" in Kiswahili), Muti’s second exhibition at Miro, “presents Mutu's latest body of collage, video and sculptural works. Drawing on such diverse references as East African coastal mythologies (particularly of nguvas, or water women), gender and racial politics, Western popular culture, Eastern and ancient beliefs and autobiography, in her works Mutu proposes worlds within worlds, populated by powerful hybridised female figures. … The interweaving of fact with fiction and an extension of the possibilities for yet another group of symbolic female characterisations that co-exist in various cultures as another understanding (or constructing) of femaleness underpins this new body of work.”
7. Carrie Mae Weems at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery
“Color: Real and Imagined” is a “carefully curated selection of Carrie Mae Weems’ work from the past 30 years, along with a new work. Significantly, this is Weems’ first solo show in the UK. Unearthing traces of racism and imperialism, place is integral to Weems’ practice. Broadening her geographical scope during the 1990s and early 2000s, the artist began to concentrate on the history of race and its relationship to locale in series such as Africa (1993) and Dreaming in Cuba (2002). Specifically, in the Slave Coast (1993) series, Weems explores the legacy of slavery by documenting the holding facilities used on Gorée Island in Senegal to house African slaves before they were shipped across the Atlantic. Envisaging the traumatic experiences of those imprisoned, the artist pairs photos of these haunting locations, now perturbingly empty, with African words which evoke the slaves’ helplessness.”
8. “Black Chronicles II,” Presented by Autograph ABP at Rivington Place
“Dedicated to the memory of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, Black Chronicles II presents over 200 photographs depicting black people in photographic studios in Great Britain during the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In this exhibition curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy of Autograph ABP, beautiful and dignified black faces in large-scale black and white prints reminiscent of Victorian grande portraiture are framed by Hall’s words in large vinyl lettering or as audio backdrop across the two galleries—with a majority of these striking studio portraits previously unseen, having lingered untouched in archives, such as Getty Images’ Hulton Archive, one of the world’s largest image resources, for decades. As such, they invite the viewers to critically re-evaluate Britain’s colonial and imperial history, to question how and why certain stories are left out of mainstream historical narratives, while appreciating the sheer pleasure of archival excavation the exhibition offers.”
With their often complex intellectual imagery, stylistically striking material and aesthetically rich, vivid depictions, there is much to enjoy and laud in these eight shows. In addition to being stimulating, at times provocative and often beautiful evocations of facets of the black experience—suffused with pathos, wry humor and, above all, a warm humanity—they are also a revealing index of how black art is now a global (and highly lucrative) marketable commodity.
So is it time to celebrate this October’s apparent moment of black artistic flourishing as a harbinger of things to come? Does this current smorgasbord of black art in London genuinely reflect a growing appreciation of the power, depth and enduring quality of black art in Europe?
Renée Mussai, curator at Autograph ABP, says, “One hopes that this is a sign of changing times where the appreciation of black artistic practice is no longer tied to a designated month of the year and is perhaps indicative of a Britain that is ready to critically engage with stimulating art, regardless of the cultural backgrounds of its creators.”
We can only hope that this is not a mere cultural fad paying lip service to Black History Month, or a cynical, ephemeral economic trend, but instead a sustainable, tangible and sincere watershed moment in the direction the global art market is taking, and one that points to a timely black-Diasporic artistic renaissance.
Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster.