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Black Artists and Modernism

Black Artists and Modernism (BAM) was a landmark, 3-year research project led by UAL in partnership with Middlesex University. It was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) between 2015 and 2018.

There are both understated connections and areas of contention between Black British artists’ practice and their art in relation to Modernism. BAM explored these through:

  • an audit of works by artists of African and Asian heritage in public collections across the UK
  • close readings of artworks
  • interviews
  • study days and conferences.

Over 30 major national and municipal public collections of art across the UK supported and participated in BAM's research.

Explore highlights from the project below and find information about exhibitions, displays, publications and talks from the BAM team.

Brenda Emmanus and UAL Professor Sonia Boyce
BBC Broadcaster Brenda Emmanus and UAL Professor Sonia Boyce on the set of 'Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History' documentary

Highlights

Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History

This BBC documentary explores UAL's research to uncover hidden works by Black British artists often forgotten within the UK’s public collections.

Presented by Brenda Emmanus, the programme follows UAL Professor Sonia Boyce and her team as they rediscover these rarely seen works. They revisit groundbreaking artists from the Windrush generation, the 60s counterculture revolution and the Black Art movement of the 80s.

The lead research consultant was susan pui san lok. Contributors include Rasheed Araeen, Lubaina Himid, Yinka Shonibare, the BLK Art Group and Althea McNish.

Documentary trailer

National Collections Audit

The BAM research was underpinned by an audit of artworks in 30 out of the UK’s 3,000 public art collections, led by Dr Anjalie Dalal-Clayton, Decolonising Arts Institute Research Fellow.

The audit identified over 2,000 artworks by 363 artists of African, Caribbean, Asian and Middle Eastern and North African descent who were born in, lived, worked or studied in the UK.

Old black and white photograph of a rally
C.L.R James speaking at a rally in Trafalgar Square in 1935

Exhibitions and displays

Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination-Repetition

Manchester Art Gallery (May 2018 - April 2019)

The Speech Acts exhibition was developed as part of, and in conversation with, Black Artists and Modernism. Featuring over 70 works by 40 artists drawn from 4 regional municipal collections, 'Speech Acts' considered how public museums reflect and shape the collective imagination, and examined how exhibitions can affect these shared narratives.

This exhibition showed how artworks can inspire new stories if they are presented beyond the limited frames of biography and identity.

People looking at artworks in an exhibition
Image: Andrew Brooks, AHRC Black Artists & Modernism project, Speech Acts exhibition opening, Manchester Art Gallery. Image: Andrew Brooks

Now! Now! exhibition

UAL Chelsea College of Arts, Cookhouse and Triangle Galleries (October 2016)

Now! Now! was a temporary display curated by Sonia Boyce, which coincided with the BAM conference titled 'Now and Then,.. Here and There…' at UAL Chelsea College of Art and Tate Britain. The show featured 15 artists who can be said to share a preoccupation with the lens and its histories.

Sonia Boyce standing speaking with audience to left and video installation to the right.
Prof Sonia Boyce speaking alongside the Now! Now! display (2016). Photo: George Torode.

Gavin Jantjes Korabra series: The Return

Herbert Gallery and Museum, Coventry (2016)

This temporary display reunited 4 out of a series of 7 large-scale paintings by the artist Gavin Jantjes.

The Korabra paintings were made on location in 1986 during a residency at the Coventry West Indian Association. The BAM audit revealed that this series of works was held by 3 neighbouring collections - Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Birmingham Museum and Gallery and the Herbert Gallery and Museum in Coventry.

The BAM project brought all 7 paintings out of storage for a study day with scholars, curators and the artist himself. This led to a new display and context labels for the paintings at the Herbert.

Installation view of a gallery with a large oil painting of small white boats on a blue sea on the left.
Gavin Jantjes, 1986, Korabra Series, Herbert Gallery display, installation view. Photo: susan pui san lok

Publications

Art History special issue: Reconsidering Three Moments

This June 2021 special issue of the journal 'Art History' was guest edited by Sonia Boyce and Dorothy Price. It took as its point of departure Stuart Hall’s essay 'Black Diaspora Artists in Britain: Three 'Moments' in Post-war History’.

'Reconsidering Three Moments' focuses on the multi-faceted genealogies of Black British modernism since the arrival of the ‘Windrush generation’. It re-centres attention on the material and conceptual nature of works by Black British artists, to ask how a reappraisal of their work can contribute to an expanded understanding of modernism.

Contributors include: Sonia Boyce, Alice Correia, Katy Deepwell, David Dibosa, Lubaina Himid, Joleen Loh, susan pui san lok, Kobena Mercer, Dorothy Price, Maud Sulter and Allison Thompson.

Pamphlets and booklets on a table.
Image: Daniel Day, AHRC Black Artists and Modernism project, David Medalla Study Day. Image: Daniel Day

Conceptualism - Intersectional Readings, International Framings

Read a collection of revised and expanded papers from the conference 'Conceptualism: Intersectional Readings, International Framings, Black Artists and Modernism in Europe Since 1968' that took place at the Van Abbemuseum in December 2017.

This substantial e-publication is edited by susan pui san lok, Sophie Orlando and Nick Aikens.

It includes essays and texts by Nick Aikens, Juan Albarrán, Lotte Arndt, Eva Bentcheva, Sonia Boyce, Jennifer Burris, Valerie Cassel Oliver, Laura Castagnini, Alice Correia, Sandra Delacourt, David Dibosa, Fabienne Dumont, Iris Dressler, E. C. Feiss,  Annie Fletcher, Alexandra Kokoli, Charl Landvreugd, Elisabeth Lebovici, Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, susan pui san lok, Sophie Orlando, Sumesh Sharma, Sarah Wilson, and Wei Yu.

Audience sitting in Chelsea Triangle Space watching a video installation
The Now! Now! display in the Chelsea Triangle Space, 2016. Photo: George Torode

Recordings

People gathered around a painting at an exhibition
BAM London conference, photographed by George Torode

Research team

More to explore

  • Close up of a magazine being held and read in someone's hands
    Visitors reading students' magazine, Show at Oxo Tower. Image: David Poultney.
    Decolonising the Arts Curriculum zine

    Learn about the experience of international students and students of colour.

  • People looking at artworks in an exhibition
    Image: Andrew Brooks, AHRC Black Artists & Modernism project, Speech Acts exhibition opening, Manchester Art Gallery. Image: Andrew Brooks
    Event recordings

    Explore our recorded events.

  • Gallery with placards made out of magazines
    Sonia Boyce, Devotional Wallpaper and Placards, 2008-2020. Acquired by the Contemporary Art Society for the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) through the Rapid Response Fund, 2020.
    Decolonising Arts Institute projects

    Learn about Decolonising Arts Institute activities.