Black Artists Look Beyond ‘Protest Art’ at British Shows

Black Artists Look Beyond ‘Protest Art’ at British Shows


MARGATE, England — When the artists Kelly Abbott and Victoria Barrow Williams heard that the Turner Contemporary Gallery was hosting an exhibition focused on art associated with the civil rights movement in the American South, they felt confused.

“We thought they missed a trick by making it so Americanized,” Ms. Abbott said in an interview. “There’s a rich Black British history here.”

So the two, who are also the directors of People Dem Collective, a Margate-based group that supports Black and brown people across Britain, approached the museum with an idea for an additional exhibit to accompany “We Will Walk — Art and Resistance in the American South” — one that would resonate more with the artists’ experiences as Black British women.

“We Will Walk” — which covers four rooms and includes 110 works — pairs photos and music from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s with work made by Black artists in Alabama and other Southern U.S. states during that period and in the decades following. A third installment, “Place, Space and Who,” features five large portraits of Black women and girls living in the Margate area, drawn onto the gallery’s walls by the British artist Barbara Walker.

On view at the gallery until Sept. 6, the exhibitions offer diverse responses to continuing debates about how Britons view and understand both Blackness and the works of Black artists, at a moment when Britain is being asked to reckon with its history of colonialism and slavery.

It remains uncommon to see exhibitions devoted to works by Black artists in a mainstream gallery space like the Turner: Ms. Walker’s commission is the fourth in the museum’s nine-year history to spotlight the work of a single Black artist.

When the Turner Contemporary Gallery closed in March because of the coronavirus, so did both “We Will Walk,” which originally opened in February, and “Place, Space and Who,” which opened last September. By the time the museum reopened, on July 22, work was already underway on the installation of “Margate to Minneapolis,” which opened on Aug. 1. Ms. Abbott and Ms. Barrow Williams had proposed the idea for the exhibit only a few weeks earlier.

The museum, which opened in 2011, is credited with hastening the recent regeneration of Margate, a poor seaside town that in previous centuries was a favorite with British vacationers.

With “Margate to Minneapolis,” Ms. Abbott and Ms. Barrow Williams wanted to highlight the efforts of the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Margate and nearby towns, and to encourage visitors to actively fight against systemic racism.

Many of the handmade signs — which hang from the ceiling, echoing the way protesters held them aloft — point to Britain’s history of anti-Black racism, emblazoned with slogans like “The U.K. is not innocent” and “Built on racism” next to the British flag. A video projected onto a wall shows footage from the marches, and a large banner nearby lists the names of Black people killed by the police in Britain.

On entry to the room, visitors are invited to put a sticker onto a poster indicating whether they would visit a local cultural center if it offered opportunities to learn more about Black and brown people in British history. People Dem Collective is raising money to open just such a cultural center on Margate’s seafront.

“Art is often a vehicle for social progress,” Ms. Barrow Williams said, adding that the Turner exhibit “shows the power of protest.”

“We Will Walk” also speaks to broad themes of resistance, but on a different continent. Freeman Vines’ carved wooden guitars, made from the wood of a North Carolina tree from which Black people were lynched, are on display, as are a collection of quilts made by Black women in Gee’s Bend, an isolated Alabama hamlet and a former plantation where many of the quilters’ ancestors were enslaved.

The exhibition also features photos taken by the British artist Hannah Collins of other works by Black artists from the American South. Ms. Collins, who is white, co-curated “We Will Walk” with the British curator and researcher Paul Goodwin, who is Black.

Ms. Collins says she hopes that staging a British exhibition featuring art associated with the U.S. civil rights movement will help Britain reckon with its own racist past.

“There’s a shared past in slavery. There’s a shared past in oppression,” she said in an interview. “If that history isn’t put together in any way, it doesn’t do anyone any good.”

Yet Ms. Walker said she wasn’t engaging in an act of protest when she drew the charcoal and chalk portraits that stretch up the walls of the gallery’s lobby. “The space I seek to reclaim is that of visibility,” she said. “With visibility comes worth, and with worth comes humanity.”

The drawings are accompanied by online audio of the sitters discussing their feelings of both belonging and marginalization in Margate, a majority-white town. In depicting real Black women and girls, Ms. Walker said she was looking to redress the dominance of whiteness in both Western art history and mainstream British history.

But the impulse to automatically call works by Black or female artists “political” limits the possible interpretations of a work, Ms. Walker says. For female artists of color like her, this presents dual difficulties.

“I personally feel that much of my career as an artist has been spent resisting the boxes that the art world wants to put me in,” she said.

Many artists have contested the tendency of art critics and the public to recognize the work of Black artists principally as tools of protest. Frank Bowling, a Guyana-born artist who has lived in the London district of Pimlico for more than five decades, has said that he moved to New York in the mid-1960s partly because in Britain his identity as a “Caribbean artist” had come with confining expectations.

“It seemed that everyone was expecting me to paint some kind of protest art out of post-colonial discussion,” he told The Guardian in 2012.

The genre known as “protest art” became prominent in mainstream discussions about Black British art after the British Black arts movement, which was birthed by a generation of young Black artists in the 1980s who addressed anti-Black racism and Black feminism in their work. This included a group of British Afro-Caribbean art students northwest of London, who formed what became known as the BLK Art Group.

“We were all interested in how you make an art practice that is responsive to political ideas,” said Keith Piper, one of its founding members.

But members sparred over how explicitly political their work should be, according to Mr. Piper and Marlene Smith, another member.

“It’s important for me to make work that speaks to the times that I live in, but I wouldn’t want to describe my work as protest art,” Ms. Smith said, adding that it wasn’t about “negating something.”

Ms. Walker echoed these sentiments.

“I don’t make ‘protest art,’” she said. “I make art.”

For the People Dem Collective, creating art as a form of protest can encourage support for the Black Lives Matter movement and disrupt the hegemonic whiteness that has traditionally dominated both the Turner and the British art world.

“To be able to have protest within that art exhibition — within that institution,” Ms. Barrow Williams said, “is huge.”





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