Black Artists and Modernism

Principal Investigator:Professor Sonia Boyce
College:Chelsea College of Arts

Black Artists & Modernism (BAM) is a three-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as a collaboration between University of the Arts London and Middlesex University.

How do artists of African and Asian descent in Britain feature in the story of twentieth century art?

There is an implied oversight that has been highlighted in Kobena Mercer’s essay ‘Iconography after Identity’ (2005), where he suggests that an art historical amnesia prevails in relation to Black-British art; of forgetting the artistic object in favour of discussions about ethnicity and identity politics. The result of this focus, Mercer argues, inevitably deflects attention away from the work of art.

BAM will address the understated connections and areas of contention between Black-British artists’ practice and the work of art’s relationship to Modernism through close readings of works of art, artist dossiers, interviews, study days, public symposia and a database of works of art in public collections across the UK.

Esteemed colleague, art historian Courtney J Martin (Assistant Professor, History of Art and Architecture, Brown University), has commented:

For several centuries Britain has introduced some of the most important art and artists to the world. Despite this rich history, the art history of the nation’s own black artists (a term that exceeds the limitations of race to encompass political and cultural solidarity) remains under-recognised nationally and internationally. The Black Artists and Modernism project promises to correct these various omissions by sharply focusing on the art that was produced within its complex spaces of artistic, cultural, historic, political and social context. The specific delineation of modernism and black artists is an astute path from which extensive research will yield new exhibitions, scholarly and popular texts, and, perhaps, most importantly, a cohort of learned practitioners for the field of art. BAM will re-write British art history and set the contemporary record straight for a generation to come.

Proposed outcomes

The design of the research will produce a wide-range of materials. These include:

  • An online multi-media website that will chronicle a national audit of art-works by Black-British artists held in public collections in the UK.
  • A series of essays, interviews and videos that discuss key art-works and their inclusion in important collections, as well as historically important exhibitions.
  • A series of public discussions will gather in places like Birmingham, Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, London and Paris.
  • Study days and symposia will be focused on signature art-works and exhibition histories looking at the impact of Black-British art on the broader narratives of modern and contemporary art practice.
  • New displays will appear at museums like the Tate, as a way to re-think the connection between the art-work and the story of modernism. Working with Illuminations, the arts and media specialists renowned for their arts programming (including the Turner Prize programmes on Channel Four), the aim is to record the unfolding research process.
  • Documentaries will be made for a variety of public media platforms including broadcast television.
  • At the end of the three-year programme an edited book 'The Blackness of Modernism: reconsidering art-works, exhibitions and collecting the work of Black-British artists' will be published by Duke University Press.

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