5 pioneering Black British artists

Melissa Chemam 9 September 2021

These Black Britons have produced some of the most thought-provoking and envelope pushing art for decades

This year sees an array of exhibitions by leading Black British artists, and as the writer in residence at Arnolfini in Bristol, Melissa Chemam shares her selection of five ground-breaking Black British artists.

1. Frank Bowling

Born in Guyana (then a British territory) in 1934, Frank Bowling moved to London in 1953 at 19 years old, where he discovered his passion for painting. After a few years, he earned a place at the Chelsea School of Art then joined the Royal College of Art, from which he graduated with the silver medal for painting in 1962.

He soon evolved from portraits to abstract art and by the mid-1960s, he was recognised by peers as an original force with a style combining figurative, symbolic and abstract elements.

Yet, Bowling felt ostracised in the elitist London art scene, despite the arrival of the so-called “Windrush generation” from all over the Caribbean. He thus moved to New York, USA, in 1966. There, he set up his own studio, in Brooklyn, and was soon granted two Guggenheim fellowships. From then, he increasingly focused on material, process and colour.

In 1975, Bowling returned to London while continuing to spend significant periods of time in New York. Legacies of both the English landscape tradition and American abstraction are therefore visible in his work: He for instance shares with Turner and Constable a preoccupation with light, evident in his “Great Thames” paintings from the late 1980s. Some of his recent paintings also reference his childhood in Guyana, like “El Dorado with my shirt collar” (2019) and “Essequibo Dawn Just Above the Equator” (2020).

"Legacies of both the English landscape tradition and American abstraction are visible in his work"

“At one time, I thought my eye was influenced by London light”, he told me in August 2021. “But when I went home to Guyana in 1989, I was staggered. When I looked at the landscape there, I understood the light in my pictures in a very different way.”

Frank Bowling has since been hailed as one of the finest British artists of his generation. In 2005, he became a Royal Academician, was awarded the OBE for services to Art in 2008, and a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2020.

In 2019, Tate Britain hosted his largest UK retrospective. His work is represented in fifty collections worldwide and has been exhibited in 160 group and 100 solo exhibitions. At the age of 87, he keeps painting every day in his South London studio, accompanied by his wife, Rachel, family members and friends, still exploring and pushing boundaries.

2. Lubaina Himid

Born in Zanzibar in 1954, Lubaina Himid moved to Britain in the 1960s with her parents and grew up in London. She studied theatre design then entered the Royal Art College.

From the early 1980s, she curated some of the first large exhibitions of black artists, including “Five Black Women” at the Africa Centre (1983), “Black Women Time Now” at Battersea Arts Centre (1983-4) and “The Thin Black Line” at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, London (1985-6). Since, she has never stopped supporting other black artists, including Sutapa Biswas, Claudette Johnson, Veronica Ryan, Ingrid Pollard, and Sonia Boyce.

These past five years, her wonderful exhibitions “Navigating Charts”, "Naming The Money” and “Invisible Strategies” addressed the trauma and memory of slavery while also recreating a visibility for forgotten enslaved African people.

“I was, very early on, a political teenager,” Lubaina Himid told me in 2017. “In the 80s, the political situation was extreme in the UK for minorities. Working with Black artists was luckily never a lonely path: We did some early collaborative exhibitions with the Black Art Group, the Black Art Gallery in London, Nottingham, and Bristol. It was the opposite of lonesome. But it was a battle.”

Winner of the Turner Prize in 2017, Lubaina Himid has a large-scale exhibition about to open at Tate Modern in London this autumn.

3. Keith Piper

Born in 1960 on the Mediterranean island of Malta, a British colony from 1814 to 1964, Keith Piper’s family is originally from Antigua, in the Caribbean. He was raised in Birmingham, and studied Fine Art in Nottingham then London.

He became a member of the Black Art Group (often written BLK Art Group, formed in 1979 in Wolverhampton) in 1982, with Eddie Chambers, Dominic Dawes, Lubaina Himid, Claudette Johnson, Wenda Leslie, Ian Palmer, Donald Rodney, and Marlene Smith.

His creative practice often acts as a response to social and political issues, historical events and geographical sites. In 1991, he curated the touring exhibition “Trophies of Empire”, inspired by the 500-years anniversary of the so-called “discovery” of the Americas by Christopher Columbus and other European explorers.

"His creative practice often acts as a response to social and political issues, historical events and geographical sites"

“Our first intention with ‘Trophies of Empire’ was of course to examine the sites in relations with the Atlantic Slave Trade, Bristol and Liverpool, then another marital city, Hull,” Keith Piper told me in an interview in 2020.

“The 500-year anniversary of America programmed so many events in the arts and in music that we felt it needed reappraisal! 1992 was a moment when people were particularly interested in uncovering this history.”

In 2002, Keith Piper was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Arts at Wolverhampton University and has taught for several years as a Reader in Fine Art at London’s Middlesex University. His work recently evolved around installation and multimedia experiences.

4. Sonia Boyce 

Born in 1962 in Islington, London, in a British Afro-Caribbean family, Sonia Boyce started drawing at a young age, and joined a Foundation Course in Art & Design at East Ham College of Art and Technology in 1979, before starting a BA in Fine Art at the prestigious Stourbridge College in the West Midland.

Soon, she took part in a wider movement, described as a Black British cultural “renaissance”, arisen out of Margaret Thatcher’s conservatism, with the likes of Eddie Chambers and Horace Ové.

In 1985, Lubaina Himid selected some of Boyce’s works for the exhibition “The Thin Black Line”, at the ICA. In 1987, at only 25, Boyce had her first drawing bought by Tate, “Missionary Position II”, becoming the first British black female artist to enter the collection.

Since the 1990s, her work has been largely exhibited in the UK and abroad. She will also be the first black female artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2022. Sonia Boyce’s exhibition “In The Castle Of My Skin” is currently on show at MIM—the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (11 June – 12 September 2021).

5. Chris Ofili

Born on 10 October 1968 in Manchester, Christopher Ofili is a British painter of Nigerian descent. He studied at Tameside College (Greater Manchester), then in London at the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art, where he also won a travelling scholarship to Zimbabwe.

He was very successful at a young age and became one of the “Young British Artists”, who emerged in the mid-1990s in London, in a counter-cultural explosion led by collector and gallery owner Charles Saatchi.

At just 30 he became the first Black artist to win the prestigious Turner Prize, in 1998. The same year, he dedicated his painting “No Woman No Cry” to the mother to Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered as a teenager in an unprovoked racist attack in London in 1993: she is portrayed with teardrops included photographs of Stephen.

"Ofili is best known for his paintings incorporating elephant dung, which owed his work to be classified as ‘punk art’"

Ofili is best known for his paintings incorporating elephant dung, which owed his work to be classified as ‘punk art’. He has also utilised resin, beads, oil paint, glitter, and cut-outs from porn magazines as painting elements.

In 2003, he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, one of the most important international art show. Since 2005, Ofili has been living and working in Trinidad and Tobago, continuing to work in London and Brooklyn too.

Frank Bowling is currently exhibited in New York and London, by the Hauser & Wirth gallery, and in Bristol at Arnolfini until 26 September.

Tate Modern will be hosting a Lubaina Himid exhibition in November

The coming exhibition "Life Between Island, opens at Tate Britain, in December, featuring work by Sonia Boyce, and many other Caribbean British artists.

Melissa Chemam is a journalist and lecturer. After a decade as a reporter in America, Europe and mostly Africa, she now writes about multiculturalism, music, art and social change, and is the author of the book Massive Attack – Out of the Comfort Zone.

For two years, she was the writer in residence at the Arnolfini art centre in Bristol, where she wrote about feminism, resistance, and artists in diaspora, including Here, There and Evenwhere, an essay on Artists from Africa and its Diaspora invited to exhibit at the gallery since 1961.   

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