By Hannah Gormley (BA3 student)
Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990, an art and archive exhibition at The Guildhall Art Gallery comes across, at first, as a total enigma. If you are lucky enough to know of the Guildhall Gallery, one of the more esoteric gems of The City, it is also likely you missed the brazen red banners downstairs, proclaiming the shows existence. In all fairness, one wouldn’t expect a show commemorating two of London’s most valuable creative activists, concerned with celebrating and exploring the Black British experience of the seventies and eighties, to take place in a gallery that is a branch of the City of London corporation. Nor would you particularly expect a show containing Eddie Chambers ‘How Much Longer You Bastards’ (1983), a brutal challenge to Barclay’s involvement in South Africa at the time of the Apartheid, to be nestled within the financial centre of the country.
No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990 is an amalgamation of art and archival material related to the African and Caribbean diaspora and those interested in the ‘black’ British experience – though their use of the term ‘Black’ denotes a political and cultural struggle rather than a specific skin colour. Part of the exhibition is dedicated to the efforts of Jessica and Eric Huntley, Guyanese born migrants who settled in London in the 1960s and founded Bogle L’Ouverture Publications in 1969. This bookshop is recreated and becomes the centre of the exhibition, attempting to evoke the ‘cultural hub’ where artists, writers and activists met and shared their work. The Huntley’s notably published Dr Walter Rodney’s ‘Groundings with my Brothers’ and ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ which were seminal to reframing black experience and analysing the systematic profiteering from oppression across the world.
This archival material is then set against art from the BLK art group of the 1980s and the Caribbean Artist Movement, or artists with similar concerns. This is where it is possible to get lost – as the link between the Huntley’s activism and artists is subtle. It is also too easy to presume that these artists like Sonia Boyce, Denzil Forrister, Keith Piper and Eddie Chambers were solely political or ‘black’ artists – when really their artworks were personal expressions that in certain works, incidentally, explored the societal tension of the time. Sonia Boyce’s rich She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (1986) pastel drawing is deeply personal and recreates the psyche of a young girl formative years, contending with her identity as both Black and British – at a time when such things could be considered incongruous. Even the shows title ‘No Colour Bar’ references the formal and unofficial racial segregation in the UK and across the world. And this is where, as a show championing the Black British experience and struggle, often under tradition and the establishment, the potency of the exhibitions message is revealed – in a grand government run gallery. Hopefully this show not only allows people to reconsider their assumptions of Black British art but of the Guildhall Gallery too.