After reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s breath-taking paperback entitled ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’, I not only began to reflect on the lack of information surrounding black British history but I also began to think about the lack of black British art. Not dismissing the work of the inspirational and iconic Turner Prize winner of 2017, Lubaina Himid, and the small handful of other widely celebrated black, British artists. I struggle to recall seeing black British artists and black art as a genre in education. GCSE level, A Level, Foundation level, Undergraduate education and Postgraduate education; I have been through these stages of education and studied art (including historic elements of art) at each level and not once was I taught about or saw people of colour in paintings and other forms of visual art. There are copious amounts of fantastic up-and-coming BME artists, some featured on this very platform, but as a millennial artist myself, I personally was not given the opportunity to interact with black art during compulsory education.
Why is this an issue you may ask? Put simply, lack of representation negates pretension, exclusivity and, in abundance, discrimination. When I initially began working on the art for my upcoming solo exhibition, I realised that despite my art qualifications and years as a creative, I knew virtually nothing about portraying a person of colour in my work. Being black British of Jamaican descent did not prevent me from struggling to visualise minorities in paintings, struggling to mix the correct shade of brown or/and black and most of all, feeling apologetic about having so many black and brown faces in my work. It took some artistic soul searching to realise that if seeing so many black figures in artwork makes you uncomfortable then you’ve identified the problem with lack of representation in art.
As an Artist-educator, it may be bias of me to say that art is possibly the most superior form of communication known to man. I stand by this for many reasons, one of them being that art crosses almost all differentiating social factors that divide us as a community. The same piece of art can be viewed and interpreted in Japan as it can in Jamaica, where culture, language, race and socio-economic factors are all at play. I cannot ignore the fact that all of these factors will affect the context in which the art is displayed and the way in which we view art is a mighty topic within itself, but ultimately, art transcends a plethora of barriers, barriers that usually prevent us from digesting a piece of information in its purest form. For example, a piece of literature originally written in French, may lose its original essence when translated, to allow 40 other nations access. A painting, a sculpture or a multimedia piece of art is less likely to require adaptation because as a form of information, it is superbly inclusive. Despite art being an inclusive and advanced form of communication, in terms of art within education, there are still many developments to be made, one of them being the presence of black art within education.
History is pertinent to society as it informs the development of our identity and influences present and future events. Countless professionals have made comparisons between art and history as subjects of study and on numerous occasions, art and history overlap within the classroom. Many of the artists belonging to the Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical and Pre-Raphaelite Era used historic events as the subject of their paintings. This pattern birthed a relationship between the two subjects; art movements naturally became a part of history and history heavily influenced artists’ work. Given how significant history is to us as individuals and as a community, the lack of history is surely equally as damming.
The current curriculum for art at key stage 3 and 4 consists of your regular art history timeline, a chronological display of your most prominent genres, specifically Medieval Art, Expressionism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. In Downing and Watson’s School art: What’s in it?1, Downing and Watson outline the above genres as key areas of artistic and cultural references to be included in the curriculum. There are also two other categories entitled “Art in the latter 20th and early 21st century: including…art produced from 1970 to the present day. International art/culture: from all time periods…”2 and “Other…covering unnamed artists, local artists known to the school…”3
The first category referenced above implies that an art curriculum taught between the years of 1995- 2005 (the period in which I was studying art) should include art and artists from 1970 onwards. The latter part of that category description, along with the second category entitled “other” is almost offensive to the missing artists and art movements that would highlight British black artists as fundamental figures within art history.
There were movements just as prominent as the renowned previously listed movements that are missing from the curriculum. The Black British Arts Movement lasted longer than both the Pre-Raphaelite era and Fauvism and yet there is no mention of The Blk Art Group; founders of the radical political art movement in the curriculum. I am an activist for both art and education so in an attempt to give the education system the benefit of the doubt, I assumed that this movement was too radical and controversial for the classroom. But this cannot be the case since we actively parade Pablo Picasso’s Guernica in front of our students despite it being a visual depiction of a brutal massacre. Artists such as Lubaina Himid, who has been creating for over 3 decades, Althea McNish, a key member of the Caribbean Artists Movement in the 1960’s and The Blk Art group, who began the conversation about defining black art and identity, are all missing from art education and secondary curriculums.
This lack of black British art within the curriculum is problematic. It deprives students of ethnic minority their history and this has many negative consequences. Not only does it portray an incorrect narrative that black artists are non-existent, but it denies these artists of the influential credit they deserve. On a wider scale, a lack of black art within the curriculum can very easily negate two sociological events; without proper representation within art, students of ethnic minority struggle to relate and visualise themselves within art and/or as an artist themselves. The other event that can develop from a lack of representation is within the minds of the majority, non-black/poc pupils fed a false story of a whites-only profession point to adverse ramifications within society.
Representation within any area has quickly become a very popular topic, with many believing that it is not so important. Whilst reading a twitter thread about minorities in politics, a user argued that one should still be able to understand a piece of information even if the person relaying that information does not look like them. I can enjoy the acting of Kit Harington in Game of Thrones as much as my peers and I am not a 30-year old white male. However, do I find the idea of pursuing and achieving a successful acting career in British television based solely on my merit and not my skin colour realistic? I would say no. It may seem like a radical notion, but the general profile of a profession can deter your dreams. If you are reading this and thinking “I have never regarded any profession as out of my reach because of the race of the professionals involved” then unfortunately, that doesn’t make you progressive, it makes you privileged.
So how do we change this narrative of white-washed art history? Whether you are a person of colour or not, whether you are an artist or a lawyer, an educator or an entrepreneur, a parent or student, you can do something. At the very least, you can do some research, acknowledge and celebrate true art history. If you are in a more primitive position such as a teacher, lecturer or professor, you can include black art and black artists in your lessons, where appropriate. And to any students reading this, do not be afraid to ask your art teacher for the art work of ethnic minorities, diverse cultural perspective will change your work forever.
Article and images by @de4nnecrooks
1 School art: what’s in it? Exploring visual arts in secondary schools. (2004). [pdf] Berkshire: Dick Downing and Ruth Watson. Available at: https://static.a-n.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/VAL01.pdf [Accessed 29 Aug. 2018]
2 DOWNING, D & WATSON, R. School art: what’s in it? Exploring visual arts in secondary schools. 2004. Page 22
3 DOWNING, D & WATSON, R. School art: what’s in it? Exploring visual arts in secondary schools. 2004. Page 22