Shortly after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in May 1979, Eddie Chambers made an artwork called Destruction of the National Front. Then a 19-year-old student in Wolverhampton, Chambers reconfigured the union jack as a swastika, before tearing it into fragments across four panels. The image stands as a defiant rebuke to a resurgent far right, evoking the anger many Black Britons felt at the time.
The work was emblematic of the Blk Art Group, a radical association of young Black artists founded by Chambers in 1979. The group, stylised as Blk and pronounced “Black”, aimed to combat racism with work that focused on the experience of being Black in Thatchers’ Britain, while promoting a distinctly Black British political identity. Although short-lived – it only lasted for five years – the group casts a long shadow over British art, through its influence on subsequent generations of Black artists and its impact on contemporaries such as Lubaina Himid and Sonia Boyce.
Meer as 40 years on from the group’s foundation, Keith Piper, 60, still looks every inch the artist in his red flannel shirt and goatee. Malta-born and raised in Birmingham, he now lives in London, though his accent is still unmistakably Brummie. Piper met Chambers in 1979 while studying at what is now Wolverhampton School of Art. “I overheard him talking about a show," hy sê, referring to Black Art An’ Done, held at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. "Ek dink, ‘He’s very serious.’ But we had a lot in common because we were the only two Black students on the course.”
Chambers quickly set about recruiting Black students from West Midlands’ art schools and soon their ranks grew. Deur 1982, Dominic Dawes, Claudette Johnson, Wenda Leslie, Ian Palmer, Donald Rodney and Marlene Smith had joined. “Eddie was a great organiser,” says Piper, “but we all had our own specific creative concerns.”
The group’s work features prominently in a new exhibition at Tate Britain, Life Between Islands, which focuses on the work of British artists of Caribbean heritage. Life Between Islands was co-curated by the director of Tate Britain, Alex Farquharson, and David A Bailey, an artist and contemporary of the Blk group. You can see how their work influenced subsequent generations, not least the Black YBAs Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare and Steve McQueen.
Chambers, now professor of art history and African diaspora art at the University of Texas at Austin, epitomised Blk’s political approach. How Much Longer You Bastards, van 1983, directly challenged the activities of Barclay’s bank in South Africa at a time when Margaret Thatcher was refusing to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime. The collage features the bank’s logo alongside pages from the Financial Times and a widely publicised image of parents carrying their dead child after the 1976 Soweto uprising, to illustrate British complicity in the inhumanity of apartheid.
Piper, in turn, incorporated text into pieces such as 1983’s The Body Politic in order to articulate complex narratives of dehumanisation and torture, for which he took inspiration from the work of Gavin Jantjes and Rasheed Areen. The work features two naked and headless bodies – a white woman, a black man – with identical text alongside each figure: “To you I was always (net) a body.” Piper says: “I needed the audience to understand the hostile scrutiny Black bodies came under from the white majority.”
The group’s work was always rooted in the politics of the era. “Wolverhampton was one of a number of places to be decimated by the experiment Thatcher was undertaking,” says Piper. “It was the usual tensions of the 1980s – the far right on the rise, anti-apartheid, Greenham Common, policing, the New Cross Fire. It was a very politicised time – and that was core to my perspective as a young Black man.”
This febrile atmosphere was evident in the reception the group received. They were immediately polarising: a breath of fresh air in some quarters, an unwelcome source of aggravation in others. “We were surrounded by a lot of reactionary forces, people who were openly hostile,” says Piper. At a 1983 showing of The Pan-Afrikan Connection at the Herbert in Coventry, complaints from a security guard about the exhibition’s subject matter forced the gallery to erect a warning notice outside the entrance: “Not suitable for people under 18.” Even on the left, the group’s work was largely dismissed. A note left in the visitors’ book read: “Angry. Too angry … more Marxist approach needed.” In the Guardian, Irene McManus wrote: “Their work is really just a collection of political posters.”
But some Blk members are now considered innovative. Donald Rodney was a leading figure, wat in gesterf het 1998 at just 36. “Donald was a very active and energetic person,” says Piper, who shared a Nottingham flat with the artist in the early 1980s and is now a trustee of his estate. Completed shortly before his death, In the House of My Father is a closeup photograph of Rodney’s hand. In his palm is a tiny sculpture of a house made of pieces of his own skin. Rodney suffered from sickle cell anaemia, an extremely painful blood condition that is particularly common in people of African or Caribbean heritage.
The artist and curator Marlene Smith was 18 when she joined the group and believes they shared a vision. “We were very coherent, both in terms of our pan-Africanism but also in wanting to make Black lives visible. There was a lot of protest in the work but what’s overlooked sometimes is the humanity.”
Pan-Africanism – the idea that African peoples and diaspora share a common history and identity, often symbolised through the colours red, gold and green – was a guiding principle for the group. “We wanted to illustrate the connection between Victorian colonialism and the struggle that we had as teenagers to find our place,” says Smith. “We were all children of Windrush maar, vir my, pan-Africanism wasn’t just about making sense of the world but also about making sense of me.”
The movement could only provide limited answers, egter. “Pan-Africanism really fed me but it couldn’t help me understand the role gender played in my identity. We were devouring books in an attempt to make sense of that time.” She mentions Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, deur klokhakies, who died last month, as well as the work of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
Smith’s 1985 sculptural installation Good Housekeeping depicts a Black woman beneath the words: “My mother opens the door at 7am she is not bulletproof.” The work was a direct response to the police shooting of Cherry Groce, who was left permanently paralysed by the incident that incited the 1985 Brixton Uprising.
Smith remembers the first meeting of Blk at Chambers’ parents house: “Claudette Johnson did an absolutely jaw-dropping job of showing her work in relation to the canon – Picasso, Rubens, Manet’s Olympia. She showed us how Black women were seen as decorative in art history, either as exotica, or evidence of how wealthy someone was.”
In a statement for The Pan-Afrikan Connection, Johnson wrote: “While the black woman experiences oppression on the grounds of her sex, sexuality and race, there is not yet a word that describes the specific and deliberate nature of this oppression.” As she says now: “The word ‘intersectionality’ didn’t exist at the time.” Johnson’s career stalled in the 1990s but has restarted in earnest. Last month she presented a solo exhibition, Still Here, at Hollybush Gardens in London. “The oppression of black women was a hot potato. It could be seen as divisive. People would ask me where I was putting my energy in terms of fighting for change: are you black, or are you a woman?”
Johnson s'n 2017 work Reclining Figure was emblematic, sy sê, of “the subtle and dramatic difference that occurs when the person doing the gazing was a black female herself.” This almost lifesize image depicts an exhausted Black woman lying horizontal. “My mum used to adopt a similar position on the sofa after she’d been on her feet all day. I had in mind that poignant moment when she finally wasn’t doing something for someone else.” Of Blk, sy sê: “In the 1980s, we were seen as people passing through – so much of our work was about making the point that we were here to stay.”
Sonia Boyce was a contemporary, as was the future Turner-prize winner Lubaina Himid. Smith and Johnson both mention The Thin Black Line, a show curated by Himid at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in 1985, as the high-water mark of Black British art in the period. The show featured key works from 11 Black female artists, including Johnson, Smith and Boyce, along with Himid herself. “That show was like storming the citadel,” says Johnson. “Lubaina had gone to the Royal College and was trying to find black artists – she curated, she wrote, she was like a magnet gathering different artists together. In terms of persuasive power, she was very similar to Eddie Chambers.”
Blk’s members were not only defined by their youth (by 25, Johnson was the oldest when the group disbanded) but also by their art school education. “Blk wasn’t outsider art,” says Johnson. “We were full of hope that we could change things – that our art could mobilise black people and inspire white people to see us differently. We were trying to bring in a new audience that hadn’t been served by those galleries before.”
Beyond Blk, 1980s Britain was fertile ground for a thriving ecosystem of Black artists. Nou 74, Tam Joseph was both a forerunner and a contemporary of Blk. Sitting in his paint and dust strewn studio, he explains how his childhood in Dominica lends his work a different emphasis. “I am Windrush," hy sê. “I didn’t experience growing up as a Black child in England.”
By way of explaining his approach, hy sê: “I love taking the mickey.” And he points to a bubble-wrapped painting of Jimi Hendrix as Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier. “Hendrix looks more like a cavalier than a fat white man," hy sê. Another painting, 1982’s The Spirit of Carnival, encapsulates the legacy of police aggression towards British Caribbean communities. The image features a carnival masquerader, alone in a sea of British police; Joseph was inspired by his experience at the 1976 Notting Hill carnival, where a riot broke out after police clashed with revellers.
Debates around education, housing and the police were central to the work of many Black artists in the 1980s. Joseph’s 1983 work UK School Report depicts the passage of a Black child through the British education system in three portraits captioned: “Good at sports”, “Likes music” and “Needs surveillance”. The director and artist Steve McQueen has mentioned the work in reference to his Year 3 photo series.
While at art school, Denzil Forrester was charged with using insulting language after he was apprehended outside a jewellery shop in London. “They thought I was casing the joint but I was just drawing it. They came over to see what I was doing and my expensive college camera attracted their attention!”
Forrester frequently painted nightclubs in his early career and says he “only started painting about the police after my friend Winston Rose was killed in 1981. I could never have done Three Wicked Men without my knowledge of what happened to Winston. I really had to work hard to capture the darkness of that London street.”
Born in Grenada, Forrester moved to Britain aged 11. “Everywhere was dark and grey," hy sê. “I never painted in the West Indies but I studied painting because my school in Stoke Newington had an art room. It was the only time you were allowed to do what you want. Once I got into art school, I knew there was no stopping me.”
The Blk Art Group disbanded shortly after the second National Black Art Convention in 1984. Most left the West Midlands after their art degrees concluded, primarily heading to London for gallery work or postgraduate study. “It was Eddie’s founding impulse that brought us all together,” says Piper. “When he lost that impulse, we went our separate ways.”
“The YBAs took the DIY strategies we used in alternative spaces and applied them in some of the biggest institutions,” says Marlene Smith. “We were the AYBs – angry young Blacks,” she jokes. Picking up on this theme, Johnson says: “We wanted to be more political than previous generations of Black artists. We used the N-word and were unafraid to reference violence, lynchings and slavery in our collective resistance to the Thatcher government. Sometimes I’m surprised the work still seems to speak to people more than 30 jare later, but then the struggles we were articulating are the struggles of many still.”
Says Piper: “We were serious about seizing space and time in the venues that had previously only been open to white artists. But we were also just young kids, egging each other on and having a good time. We were supposed to be talking about the logistics of shows but we’d mostly fight about politics and music – mainly Reggae, Mod, Ska-revival and 2-Tone in those days … It was a bizarre and multilayered era but a very important one in terms of the consolidation of Black communities in this country.”
Om terug te kyk, Piper thinks it was remarkable how fully formed the group’s vision was at the outset: by the time Chambers applied for degree courses, Destruction of the National Front was already under his belt: “I remember him working away in his room, marking up these flags and tearing them to pieces. It’s mad to think he was turned down with that in his portfolio. Now it’s part of the national collection at the Tate.”