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Green Light in the City

The Place is Here at Nottingham Contemporary

9 March 17 words: Lucy Manning and Rachel Tait

There are some things from the eighties that we’ve – thankfully – waved goodbye to: Grolsch bottle tops on your shoes, poodle perms and the painfully long loading time of the Spectrum ZX. Some things, however, have stuck around like proverbial bad smells. Things like a lack of diverse representation on our television screens, oppressive and suppressive politics and political leaders, racism and xenophobia. Nottingham Contemporary’s latest exhibition, The Place Is Here, holds both colonial and modern Britain to account, unashamedly points the finger, and demands a response.

Art and Activism

All of the artwork within the exhibition was created in the eighties. Many of the artists featured – including Lubaina Himid, Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers, Marlene Smith, Donald Rodney and Claudette Rodney – were members of the Blk Art Group and became an integral part of the Black Art Movement. Formed in 1979 in a Wolverhampton polytechnic, the Blk Art Group believed “Black art... must respond to the realities of the local, national and international Black communities.” However, what Black art actually is, and the Black Arts Movement was, is still heavily contested.

According to the Tate’s definition, the Black Arts Movement, was “a radical political art movement founded in 1982, inspired by anti-racist discourse and feminist critique, which sought to highlight issues of race and gender and the politics of representation.” Artists questioned the social, cultural and political legacies in Britain by appropriating, and often reinventing, pre-existing art.

“The artist was always talking to the activist,” explains Lubaina Himid. “All the artists that you can see in this show were constantly reading and listening to political thought. We didn’t make this work separately to the political activity that was going on.” And the exhibition is as politically charged, and relevant, as it was thirty years ago.

Ms Himid’s A Fashionable Marriage – a direct re-translation of Hogarth’s Marriage A-La-Mode – is the meeting of, as Lubaina herself describes it, “the hypocritical world of art, and the dangerous world of politics.” Her cardboard cut-out of Ronald Reagan requesting the artistic embodiment of Margaret Thatcher – complete with a multitude of newspaper cut outs – to join him in a dance, is scarily reflective of the current ‘special relationship’ between Theresa May and Donald Trump.

The Place Is Here aims fire at the entertainment industry – a target that has, over the last three decades, repeatedly failed to acknowledge their institutional and systemic racism. This year, the Grammys found themselves under attack from artists including Frank Ocean, Solange and Adele. “What the fuck does Beyonce have to do to win Album of the Year?” asked Adele in her acceptance speech for the award. Be white, perhaps? Will and Jada Smith boycotted the Oscars last year after all twenty of the acting nominees, for the second year in a row, were white. Keith Piper’s Black Assassin Saints is an unapologetic celebration of fictional black artist assassins who, as “victims of neo-colonialism”, use their craft to “rock corrupt Babylon to its foundations”. Blasting institutions for overlooking the Black artist, and for refusing to acknowledge that the industries to which they belong were built on money made from the slave trade.

I found myself standing in Gallery 2 for quite some time. Surrounded by the faces of black women; paintings, photographs, newspaper cuttings, posters, poetry, and embroidery, created by and detailing the experiences of Black and ethnic minority women. As possibly the most discriminated against section of our society, I realised how rare it is that I am presented with the experiences and opinions of black women, and how little space they are given to explain and educate.

Maud Sulter’s work, particularly her collage piece using her As A Blackwoman poem, is her harrowing account of what it means for a black woman to bring a child into the world: “As a blackwoman/ the bearing of my child/ is a political act… I have/ been mounted in rape… I have/ borne witness to the murders of my children/ by the Klan, the Front, the State”. The piece cuts right to the heart of what we won’t understand unless we have directly experienced it. And what we don’t understand because we’ve never bothered to try.

The Place Is Here is about making the invisible, visible. It’s a call to arms to the next generation. It’s a history lesson that, by and large, the white British among us were never taught. It’s a vitally important space for some of the most silenced groups in our society to explain their experience, and show us where we are failing to rectify our mistakes. Lucy Manning

The Review

The eighties was a period fuelled by anger and the need to protest against the norm; The Place Is Here not only highlights that, but offers an insight into the views of those who led this revolution. The collection of over 100 pieces of work, in various formats, represents the dialogues of over thirty Black British artists from the eighties.

Nottingham Contemporary is quick to point out that this is not a chronological show. Instead, the eclectic mix of mediums have been categorised into four groups, all named after pieces in the exhibition: Signs of Empire, We Will Be, The People’s Account and Convenience Not Love. It’s not so much a narrative of progression, more a declaration of feeling for the period.

Signs of Empire highlights those artists who were turning to the colonial past in order to find a current identity. Drawing inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement and looking back to the oppression of cultures caused by the British Empire, confrontation of the white version of history is clear. Sonya Boyce’s Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain so Great is just one harsh reminder that the thorns on an English rose were literal for many. While Eddie Chambers’ Deconstruction of the National Front breaks up a swastika emblazoned with the union jack to draw a direct comparison to the Nazis.

Ingrid Pollard’s Pastoral Interlude uses the black figure to remind us that our traditional British pastoral landscape is a particularly white image, built on “the blood of slavery”. She writes, “it’s as if the black experience is only lived within an urban environment… I wandered lonely as a black face in a sea of white.” This nostalgic image is unaccepting of our changing identity, rooted firmly in a white British image of beauty.

By embracing montage, these artists are able to challenge and reassemble histories. Looking back, we can take some nostalgia from the images of protests and familiar anger towards Thatcher. After all, the eighties weren’t just a period of racial inequality; industrial decline, gay rights, feminism and religious identity all stood alongside black rights in protest.  

An important exhibition, it’s a show of power in protest, said with a voice that should be listened to. Every visitor will leave with something different from it. For me, it was the realisation that the world hasn’t changed. Born in the nineties, I didn’t experience or witness the social struggles of the eighties, but it looks as though history may be repeating itself. I left enlightened, but with a great sadness; it feels as though Nottingham Contemporary are holding up a mirror rather than showing a window into the past. Rachel Tait

The Place Is Here, Saturday 4 February - Sunday 30 April, free. 

Nottingham Contemporary website

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