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Issue 200

Frank Bowling’s Black Cultural Expression

Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman (1968) invokes a multiplicity of diasporic readings’

BY Rianna Jade Parker in Fan Letter | 29 JAN 19

Frank Bowling, Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman, 1968, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy: the artist and Tate Britain, London

Guyana-born Frank Bowling arrived at London’s Royal College of Art in 1959; in 2005, he was to become the first Black artist elected as a Royal Academician. Aided by a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967, Bowling relocated to New York and became part of a community of Black artists. Flowing between figurative painting, British pop and abstract expressionism, he had a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971. As an artist who is also a writer, Bowling – whose retrospective at Tate Britain will open in May – has attempted to define and describe the marvel that is ‘Black art’. In a 2007 Guardian interview, he asserted that ‘the Black soul, if there is such a thing, belongs in modernism’. 

Paul Gilroy’s much-cited book The Black AtlanticModernity and Double Consciousness (1993) highlights the symbiotic relationship between the African diaspora and European modernity. Painted two years after Guyana won independence from Britain, in Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman (1968) Bowling found a way to creatively re-cross the Atlantic. With its outlines of South America and Africa and its vertical blocks of green, yellow and red – references to Guyana, various African flags and adornments worn by Jamaican Rastafarians, the painting invokes a multiplicity of diasporic readings. Gilroy aptly dubbed this approach as ‘the polyphonic qualities of Black cultural expression’.

Rianna Jade Parker is a writer, curator and researcher. She is a founding member of the interdisciplinary collective Thick/er Black Lines and a contributing editor of frieze. Her book A Brief History of Black British Art is forthcoming from Tate Publishing. She lives in London, UK.