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Recognising the diversity of practice in British South Asian visual art

oil painting of indistinct figure
  • Written bySarah McLean
  • Published date06 May 2021
oil painting of indistinct figure
Yakshi, 1987, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 cm © Jai Chuhan

In November 2020 we announced that Camberwell College of Arts had convened a new British National Art Network titled British South Asian visual art post "Cool Britannia", founded in partnership with Tate and Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

Led by Camberwell Painting lecturer Raksha Patel with UAL Professor Daniel Sturgis, the network will hold its first event on Tuesday 11 May.

The Body, the Home of Unseen Landscapes will look at the placement of the diasporic body within the traditions of Western European art. Three artists have been invited to share their depictions of the ‘other’ through painterly surfaces, deteriorated celluloid film and the photographic male nude.

We spoke to Raksha and Daniel to find out more about the event and the Network.

Film still showing a woman in a white dress from above.
Still from Priya, 2011, 16mm film ,13 minutes, Alia Syed.

To start with: Raksha, as the leader of this new network, please could you tell us a bit about yourself and your own practice? How does this research work relate to your work as an educator and staff member on BA Fine Art: Painting at Camberwell?

Raksha: I am an artist who works in drawing and painting. My work begins with exploring locality, what is seen in the space that I occupy every day and my relationship with it. This imagery is fused with found archive imagery often of the same locality so that past and the present merge, as well as personal and the collective experiences.

The process of drawing transforms the known to create new narratives, challenging what is seen on a surface level. This extends to ideas of ‘otherness’ and the exploration of racial identities. I am interested in documenting lesser-known narratives relating to post-colonial life, migration, and notions of Britishness.

The focus of my work engages visual imagery found within British South Asian communities during the 1970’s as this has been little depicted via the medium of paint. I have a sense of urgency to share these experiences before they fall out of memory and personal accounts vanish. This is one impetus for starting this new research, as well as the invisibility of artworks made by artists of British South Asian diaspora in national art collections.

I studied at Norwich School of Art (1994) and the Slade School of Art (1998). At the time the numbers of British South Asians students taking up Fine Art were very small. This made talking about race and identity in the studio difficult as there were few people within the art college that had that insight and could support and fully understand the ideas in my work.

Having had these challenging experiences early on in my career I feel that I have now developed a deeper sense of empathy in how I relate to students who are exploring these and connected issues within their work. It adds to a greater sense of understanding, compassion, patience and when teaching, ensuring that I examine my own positionality when sharing my thoughts with students.

black and white portrait of person with bananas hanging from their belt wearing multiple pearl necklaces
Negrophilia! 2010, George Chakravarthi.

Daniel, please can you perhaps tell us about the relationship between Camberwell and Tate and the Paul Mellon Centre in setting up this new network?

Daniel: One of the unique aspects of our project is that it has emerged from discussions at an art-school, from the painting studios at Camberwell.

More usually these British Art Networks are developed by curatorial staff at museums and galleries or in designated art historical departments or research institutes. Both Raksha and I are keen for this network to feel grounded in art making, practice and the studio – and all the events that we are organising will reflect this.

Researchers from Tate and the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art are involved in the project, the funding we secured came from both those organisations, however our events will reach out to students, alumni, and artists as well as Museum and gallery professionals.

A painting in mostly red hues showing an abstract figure in the foreground and a smaller figure behind.
Memories we don't remember, 2021, oil on canvas, 150 x 205cm (detail) © Jai Chuhan

It is interesting that the network has grown from anti-racism and decolonising discussions between academics, artists and students in Camberwell’s painting studios – can you tell us a bit about how these conversations started?

Raksha: Discussions on decolonialising the curriculum have been taking place nationwide for several years. Whilst primary and secondary schools have been making changes, the growth of the inclusion of histories outside of the Western European perspective has been slow in art colleges.

Post-Black Lives Matter (BLM) there were conversations regarding setting up a series of anti-racist workshops that centre around painting, using paintings as starting points for conversations.

My work prior to UAL was within art galleries where I would use works on display to prompt dialogues with young people on race, identity, inequalities in society, etc. We were keen to do something similar within the painting department, however when it came to researching which contemporary paintings to use in our workshops, we found the selection paintings made by contemporary British South and East Asian artists limited – it was easy to find works made in the 80’s/early 90’s but not thereafter.

This led to researching why British South Asians haven’t or couldn’t sustain their practice as artists and the factors were mainly financial but also racial, in terms of works simply not being included and opportunities not being given.

A person with long black hair and a tiara, looking directly to the camera against a black background.
Self Portrait, Miss 1975 from Miss UK, an archive, live performance in 3 parts, 2011, George Chakravarthi.

Why did you set up the network and why the focus on artists post-Cool Britannia?

Raksha: In 1980’s there were several prominent exhibitions linked to Black Arts Movement, the curators behind these shows were of African and Asian descent. The works shown were made by artists of the African, South, and East Asian diasporas. The impact that this movement made was ground-breaking, the important work done then has a long-lasting legacy that we draw upon today. It is important to note that the Black Arts Movement emerged from a network of students having conversations within art college studios.

In the mid-90’s there was a focus on ideas of Britishness, Brit Pop and the YBA’s, whilst this included ‘Asian Kool’ centring around the music scene and the club night Anokha. It was short-lived, and British Asians were again no longer seen as cool and continued to be side-lined.

The 90’s recession meant that there was a lack of funding and opportunities for visual artists, and degree courses were no longer free. These are a few factors that led to a slow decline in diversity within the art world, which inevitably has led to an invisibility of the British South Asian experience in the visual arts.

We found that when artists of the South Asian diaspora are acknowledged in writing, lectures and seminars the emphasis falls upon the artists in the 80’s and not thereafter. The last dedicated catalogue to British South Asian art was published in 2001 – little else exists in libraries for younger artists to reference and these are some of the reasons to explore works made post-90’s.

Black and white film still showing an extreme close up of a hand holding up a woman's dark hair. In the still you can see her bare back and the back of her neck.
Still from Watershed, 1994, 16mm film, 14 minutes, Alia Syed.

Can you tell us a bit about the event that you have coming up? This is the event that will launch the Network: can you tell us about selecting the artists and theme for the talk.

Raksha: The first event focuses upon the body. We felt that the theme of the body or the nude centres around Western European painting, yet is the body that is universal and is found across most genres worldwide.

The 3 artists that will talk at this event - George Chakravarthi, Jai Chuhan and Alia Syed - are very interesting in that all their works move away from mainstream representations of the figure, the cliches and stereotypes seen in the media of the South Asian body.

Their works come from personal histories and lived experiences of navigating both private, public, and political spaces that question what we might know or think we know of British South Asian experiences and communities.

What are your plans for the future of the Network?

Daniel: We are planning 1 other event this academic year, looking at how several painters directly confront racism and racial violence within their artworks. This will be also online – and Raksha will be one of the artists speaking about her own practice.

Then after the summer we are planning a themed women’s only participatory workshop fore-fronting and recognising the on-going importance of creative safe-spaces for all. We are still working out its exact content but importantly it will be co-authored with a women’s only community education programme. It is so important to realise that there are many art worlds.

And later we are planning more discussions, I am particularly looking forward to one on abstraction – thinking through the spiritual, physical and material contexts within some abstract paintings by certain British South Asian artists.

Book your place at the The Body, the Home of Unseen Landscapes event

For more information about the network, contact britishasianvisualarts@arts.ac.uk

Find out more about BA Fine Art: Painting at Camberwell