Professor discusses book on histories of black British artists

Chris Mendez

According to Eddie Chambers, art and art history associate professor, black artists from Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean faced exclusion from British art galleries and museums because of their race and ethnic backgrounds. In a lecture Thursday, Chambers discussed his book, “Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s,” on the undocumented history of black British artists who included elements of their heritage into their art. 

Chambers said many of the artists incorporated their struggles with identity into their work because of the influence of their immigrant parents.

“A generation of people who [were] born to migrant parents — primarily Caribbean migrant parents — came [to England] in the mid ’50s to late ’60s,” Chambers said. “All these tussles of retention and assimilation are present in the works of these artists.”

Cherise Smith, director of the Warfield Center of African and African American Studies, said many black British artists have not received attention for their work, even though they remain a prominent part of the British art community.

“It’s important to study because it’s an important part of British culture and all of art history that has been left out until now,” Smith said. “Curators just didn’t recognize artists of color who were black and who were of Asian descent as recognizable artists.”

The artists started their own exhibitions in the 1980s as part of the Young British Artists (YBA) movement, which influenced contemporary artists such as artist-turned-director Steve McQueen and Chris Ofili, who incorporates elephant dung into his paintings. 

“The effects of the YBA continue right up to the present day,” Chambers said. “They’ve influenced several generations of artists that’ve come up after them.”

Maryam Ohadi-Hamadani, an art history graduate student who studies black British artists, said she understands the importance of studying this unknown part of art history.   

“The fact that there’s been so little written on this part of history,” Ohadi-Hamadani said. “So having any sort of book that is able to bring anything to that is interesting.”

Chambers said he wanted to write the book to document the history of artists who continue to diversify the art community.

“The art world now is very different than how it was 20 or 30 years ago,” Chambers said. “As for the presence of black artists in the British art world, I think it’s still quite tenuous.”