Chris, Steve, and Yinka: We Run Tings1

By Chambers, Eddie | Cross / Cultures, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Chris, Steve, and Yinka: We Run Tings1


Chambers, Eddie, Cross / Cultures


Until the 90s, there were hardly any black students at British art colleges. Ofili's success showed that, if you have the intelligence, sawy and ambition, being an artist is a career option. Someone has to pave the way. And it was clear from the first not just how ambitious Ofili was, but how individual his take on painting was - once he'd ditched his student style of narrative figuration (funny how things make their return, and are never entirely lost). Rather than living up to his reputation, he is now more concerned to push his art forward. One of Ofili's earlier solo shows was called Freedom One Day: let's see where freedom leads him.2

IN ONE OF RASHEED ARAEEN'S ESSAYS FOR THE OTHER STORY catalogue,3 one passage stands out as being particularly pithy. It was a comment on the British art scene, which stood accused, by Frank Bowling, of flagrant disregard for his accomplishments, when as a young painter he was overlooked for an important exhibition, The New Generation, held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1904.4 The exhibition, wrote Araeen, "featured all of [Bowling's] friends who were later to become famous."5 His exclusion apparently "confused"6 Bowling:

he had received critical acclaim from almost every art critic of note and there was tremendous enthusiasm for his work. When he tried to find out why he was turned down, he was apparently told, "England is not yet ready for a gifted artist of colour."7

Several decades later, England declared itself ready for not just one, but three particular gifted artists of colour. Their names were Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili, and Yinka Shonibare. The scale of their successes, the nature of their successes, and the extent to which these successes were celebrated - these things were quite unparalleled in the history of Black artists in Britain. The achievements of other Black artists, before these three took centre stage, were decidedly modest by comparison. The triumphs of McQueen, Ofili, and Shonibare were, by any standard, substantial, enduring, and ultimately epochmaking. I'm minded, or tempted, to refer to the artists by their first names of Steve, Chris, and Yinka, simply because they represent an art-world equivalent of the dominant culture's familiar references to celebrity TV chefs such as Delia, Gordon, Jamie, and Nigella. Very simply, given the virtual omnipresence of these three artists, constantly feted as celebrities, there are ways in which first names would suffice. There was, in actuality, a precedent for addressing high-profile artists of the yBa generation by their first names alone. The cover of Art Monthly for September 1998 trailed one of its pieces with "No Damien No Gary No Tracey," in which Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, and Tracey Emin were the three artists for whom first names would suffice. The writer referred to them, and several other artists, as "?-list art celebs."8

While Black artists of the 19805 and early 19905 achieved some notable successes and accomplishments, in terms of raising their profile, they nevertheless, to a great extent, remained, for various reasons, quarantined from the mainstream and rooted in particular art-world pathologies relating to the Black artist. But McQueen, Ofili, and Shonibare have each, it could be said, broken through in the most dramatic of ways. Their successes are legion. McQueen became the first Black-British artist ever to have a solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; Shonibare was a recipient of the prestigious Paul Hamlyn Award9 and was responsible for one of the most celebrated Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth10 commissions; and Ofili and McQueen both won the coveted Turner Prize, in back-to-back years, the first British-bom Black artists ever to do so. Individually and collectively, these artists have secured large, significant, and, it seems, ever-expanding amounts of press coverage. This coverage even extends to Vogue magazine11 and incidental cartoons on the front pages of broadsheets, as well as substantial features, interviews, and reviews, across a wide spectrum of magazines, newspapers, and TV and film programmes. …

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