BY Keith Piper in Profiles | 03 MAR 23
Featured in
Issue 233

Keith Piper on the Legacies of the BLK Art Group

The artist offers his personal recollections of co-founding a collective instrumental to the British Black Arts Movement in the 1980s

BY Keith Piper in Profiles | 03 MAR 23

Whilst sifting through the cobweb-covered contents of my attic, I recently came across a long-lost artwork from 1982. Pieces from that period in my career have become rare, as they were often misplaced or abandoned in transit between the various living and working spaces typical of my nomadic student lifestyle. However, this one had remained intact due its relatively compact size. Titled As Arm in Arm they Entered the Gallery, it had featured in a series of group exhibitions staged during the early 1980s entitled ‘The Pan-African Connection’. Loosely derived from a found image of 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson holding Superior Court judge Harold Haley hostage during a fatal siege in California in 1970, the work hijacked, anonymized and rendered allegorical the original photograph to point to how some of us viewed our precarious, disruptive outsider role as artists against the backdrop of the early 1980s with its monoracial and, at times, highly antagonistic art audiences. The punchline of the work read: ‘This nigger is sure stretching my liberalistic tendencies.’

Although rhetorically and contextually at one extreme of my practice, As Arm in Arm they Entered the Gallery, which was installed at the entrance to so many of our collective exhibitions, is an apt point of entry through which to revisit my personal recollections of the BLK Art Group. This was the name adopted by a small informal grouping of Art Students of Black Caribbean descent based in the Midlands and the North of England during the early years of the 1980s, who have been identified, in retrospect, as a key component in what evolved to be referred to as the British Black Arts Movement.

Keith Piper, As Arm in Arm they enter the gallery, 1982. Courtesy: the artist

The period sandwiched between the Notting Hill Carnival Riot of 1976 – sparked by arbitrary police violence towards young Black attendees – and Margaret Thatcher’s comments in a 1978 interview about the UK becoming ‘swamped’ with immigrants, in the lead up to her election as British Prime Minister the following year, set the stage for the tensions of the early 1980s, and the role that children of the Windrush Generation, maturing into young adulthood during that period, would play in that history.

It was against this backdrop that I left secondary school in 1979 with a clutch of mediocre qualifications and travelled from Birmingham, where I grew up, to nearby Coventry to start a foundation course in Art and Design. I ended up sharing a studio space with the only other Black student on the course, Eddie Chambers. In many ways, Chambers and I had much in common. We were both products of an upbringing in the literalist Protestant Fundamentalism of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. We were both, also, in youthful rebellion against this background. Although, as the painter Frank Bowling would later teasingly point out to me in conversation, we had both retained its attachment to rhetorical orthodoxy and apocalyptic evangelism – albeit wrapped in a new language informed by our reading of books by Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton.

However, in terms of our artistic practices, Chambers and I were very different. He was already focused on communicating clearly delineated political messages using accessible graphic iconography and text. Remarkably, he produced his landmark piece, The Destruction of the National Front (1979), now in the Tate collection, during this pre-degree period. To his intense irritation, my work during this period was messy and esoteric. Embracing neo-dada with youthful enthusiasm, I clattered together found objects and jarringly incongruous texts intended to disorientate or – as I would attempt to argue at the time – to ‘funk’ the viewer. Chambers saw little value in this approach and was somewhat irritated when I overheard him describing an exhibition he was planning with some fellow students from his old college. This information was never intended for my ears, but I barged in nonetheless and, after some persuading, managed to secure an invitation to the next meeting of what was evolving to be Wolverhampton Young Black Artists at his family home in the city.

Exhibition flyer from ‘Black Art an’ Done’ at the Wolverhampton Art Centre, 1981. Courtesy: Keith Piper

Under the mentorship of local activist Eric Pemberton, the group originally planned to install the exhibition at their former college. However, the show, titled ‘Black Art an’ Done’, was subsequently relocated to the more prominent venue of Wolverhampton Art Gallery, where it took place in June 1981 – a key year in the evolving political landscape of Black Britain. The trauma of the New Cross Massacre – a south London house fire, likely resulting from a racist attack, which claimed the lives of 14 young Black people and prompted the ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ protesting the lack of police action – combined with the police’s discriminatory ‘stop-and-search’ policies of Operation Swamp led to riots in south London that would reverberate across the country. These uprisings arguably shifted the discourse around race in Britain following the publication of the government-commissioned Scarman Report in November 1981, which confirmed widespread institutional racism and called for urgent action to address it.

Landing squarely within this moment, ‘Black Art an’ Done’ was perhaps the first time the term ‘Black Art’ had been used in a British art context. We were not aware of this, since much of our reading at the time was informed by the writings of the US Black Arts Movement of the 1970s. However, the exhibition was topical enough to attract the attention of Claudette Johnson, then a Fine Art student at Wolverhampton Polytechnic. She joined the group for its next outing, under the revised title of ‘The Pan-Afrikan Connection’, which took place at the Africa Centre in central London in May 1982.

Main image: exhibition flyer for the 'The Pan-Afrikan Connection’, 1982. Courtesy: Keith Piper

From that first exhibition in 1981, the Wolverhampton Young Black Artists informally morphed into the BLK Art Group, with an evolving line-up of artists across a series of projects. While founding members Dominic Dawes, Andrew Hazel and Ian Palmer fell away, Wenda Leslie and Janet Vernon joined the group alongside Johnson. At the opening of the third group exhibition, held at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery in June 1982, Marlene Smith introduced herself and became an active member. The only male artist to join the group during this period was a fellow Fine Art student at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham. Despite being a year below me, his hyper-gregarious personality, innovative engagement with contemporary art and political seriousness impressed even Chambers. This was Donald Rodney.

Driven largely by Chambers’s energy, the group succeeded in staging exhibitions at a range of public galleries around the UK during the early 1980s. Arguably, however, it was the First National Black Art Convention, held at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in October 1982, that was the BLK Art Group’s most significant legacy. The audience included individuals and collectives who would contribute significantly to the development of Black contemporary art practice through to the present day. Chaired by Vernon and Pemberton, the convention saw a series of papers delivered and debates triggered which can be understood, in retrospect, to have signalled many of the trends, but also the fault lines, which would go on to characterize the decade.

Drawing on a long history of cultural activism, art practice and research, Rasheed Araeen spoke to the need for a political rather than ethnically derived definition of Blackness: ‘By Black,’ he observed, ‘I mean the condition of belonging to a postcolonial world: that is, not belonging to the centre but to the periphery.’ Countering this, members of the collective who were soon to open The Black Art Gallery in London’s Finsbury Park, including its director Shakka Dedi, spoke to their particular brand of Afrocentric cultural nationalism and what they envisaged the role of art practice to be in addressing the needs specifically of peoples of African descent. Bowling offered insights from his many decades of addressing these issues on both sides of the Atlantic, whilst Edward George and Trevor Mathison, from the Black Audio Film Collective, added to the debate with their impassioned young voices informed by the politics of class struggle.

Exhibition flyer from the ‘First National Black Art Convention’, 1982. Courtesy: Keith Piper

However, the most consequential debate of the day was prompted by Johnson’s presentation, titled ‘Images of Black Women in Art’, about her large figurative drawings of Black women. In the audience were both Lubaina Himid – who had several years’ experience of artistic practice, activism and writing around women’s art – and a young Sonia Boyce, spurred to attend the conference having seen an event flyer. Following a brief but slightly acrimonious exchange, the decision was made to divide into break-out groups to discuss specific papers. It was during these break-out sessions that Boyce, Himid, Johnson, Smith and others were able to exchange ideas at a key moment in the evolution of the visibility of Black feminist practices.

The BLK Art Group was relatively short-lived. By 1984, its momentum had dissipated and its members had become increasingly engaged in solo projects and broader survey exhibitions. Its legacy remains significant largely because of the network of artists who converged in Wolverhampton in October 1982, and their wider impact on the Black Arts Movement in general, and Black Women’s practices in particular, which have gone on to so radically shape contemporary art in the UK and beyond. 

This article appeared in frieze issue 233 with the headline ‘Black Art and Done’

Main image: exhibition flyer from ‘Black Art an’ Done’ at the Wolverhampton Art Centre, 1981. Courtesy: Keith Piper

Keith Piper is an artist, curator, critic and academic. He is associate professor in Fine Art at Middlesex University, UK.