Things Done Change: The Cultural Politics of Recent Black Artists in Britain

Article excerpt

In an article published to coincide with Chris Ofili's retrospective at Tate Britain in 2010, Guardian art critic Adrian Searle claimed that: 'Until the 1990s, there were hardly any black students at British art colleges. Ofili's success showed that, if you have the intelligence, savvy and ambition, being an artist is a career option.' While such a viewpoint has arguably become the norm in explaining the meteoric rise of black artists such as Ofili and for narrating the recent story of British art history, it also reflects a mindset that Eddie Chambers refers to as 'a sort of Year Zero, taking no respectful account of whatever had gone before the mid to late 1990s'. This mindset has also, according to Chambers, been able to flourish because, for others still today, the 1980s was 'the be-an and end-all of Black artists' activity'. Things Done Change sets out to challenge such divergent and equally problematic attitudes while presenting an alternative view of recent art history.

At its core, Things Done Change 'seeks to understand the ways in which both the construction and the perception of Black artists, Black images, and Black artists' practice all changed markedly over a period of time'. The period under scrutiny primarily spans the early 1980s through to the early 2000s. Over five chapters, Chambers fashions an expansive critique that sheds new light on a broad range of black artistic practice and contextualises the varied fortunes of black artists in the UK.

Things Done Change draws on a substantial range of sources, including exhibitions, media and academia, to construct a meticulously researched and in-depth critique. In doing so, Chambers provides lucid insight into the changing values and tastes of the (UK) art world, which have themselves been influenced by the shifts that have taken place across the UK's social, political and cultural landscape. In this regard, Chambers's narrative calmly positions the work and activities of black artists in relation to this broader context. There are two interrelated reasons for this approach. Firstly, Chambers questions the assumed 'objectivity' of art criticism, asserting that 'The bookshelves of this country's university libraries contain no end of sloppy, partial, racially biased "white" scholarship that masquerades as objective canonical knowledge'; and secondly he expresses the view that 'Black artists have been susceptible to being excised from all manner of narratives, even, ludicrously, their own' Chapter headings appropriated from the political and cultural arena, such as 'You were the future once' and 'Everything Crash', function both literally and metaphorically, further illustrating Chambers's commitment to placing his subject within a wider social context.

During the early 1980s the UK visual arts sector experienced a new and unprecedented level of artistic activity generated by the first generation of British-born black artists. The chapter 'The only thing to look forward to ... is the past' explores how during the 1980s 'arguments and opinions about Black artists' practice were advanced, moulded, and contested, not only via the written and spoken word but also through curatorial initiatives'. By the early 1990s much of the promise and optimism of this generation had, for a number of reasons, including certain institutional indifference and hostility, steadily evaporated. …