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The black subject: ancient to modern

The black subject: ancient to modern
Tate Britain Saturday 21st of February

This symposium, which in only one day tried to cover the appearance of the black subject in art from ancient times up to modernism, was a gathering together of interesting recent research, given by compelling speakers. It is unusual for me to attend a symposium or conference and not feel bored at least part of the time. I am happy to report that at no point did I find myself thinking “why on earth did they put that on for/” or “who is this person and how can they have the nerve to stand there talking like this?” No, this was a timely, well-organized and utterly fascinating day.

Part of the appeal was just the absolute necessity of this discourse. I have written on a number of occasions* about the invisibility of the non-white artist, and the working-class artist, but I haven’t really talked much about the invisibility of the nonwhite subject. Actually, it was exactly this issue that brought the whole problem to my attention: the invisibility of nonwhite subjects in paintings. I wondered why, despite the plethora of images of black subject in advertising, when it comes to fine art, contemporary artists don’t go there. Then I realized that that’s not it: the problem rather is that the contemporary artists who do make those pictures are much less visible than white artists.


A large part of the symposium was dedicated to “finding the black face” in art history. Although this might sound a bit odd, I believe that it’s a necessary act, and one that really needs to be done more. And when I say done more, I mean addressed within the education / Museum situation. For example, in the late medieval and early Renasissance, it was common for at least one of the Magi to be depicted as a black person. Why not actually draw attention to this and make it talking point within a museum display? There are many depictions of white people with black servants, but this offers a possibility to broaden out the art historical discussion. This point was made by the curator Jan Marsh, who helpfully provided a useful list of images of paintings of Black subjects in British art institutions.


I think at the root of it all is probably the fact that we still labor under a misconception which probably comes out of the 18th century. The 18th century saw the rise of industrial capitalism, of which slavery was the first development, fueling the money that was then available to build factories and develop technology. This obviously meant that the black population of Britain, particularly port cities would’ve increased and the availability of black servants would’ve increased also. Hence the depictions in art.

The 18th century also gives us something else: a kind of whitewashing of the history of the ancient world. Thanks to the Hellenistic endeavors of Johann Winckelmann, we have a picture of the ancient world which is largely white, as white as the marble statues and temples of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Except that this is not true at all. This whitewashing of the ancient world, extends quite laughably to our visual image of it, the white marble image of Aryan perfection. Except that we actually know now that the ancients painted their statuary and all of their temples. I refer you to the brilliant book Chromophobia by David Batchelor for more on this classical legacy.

The Greeks did have a concept of barbarians and Greeks, but this is not based on race. The Romans, on the other hand, didn’t have any racial ideas whatsoever. Their distinction was whether you were Roman citizen or not, and whether you were free or not. Once you had freedom, it didn’t matter what color you were. Roman hierarchy was not racially based. Going along with that was the fact that the and Roman world, the Mediterranean, was conceived as being the entire Mediterranean, not just the North Mediterranean. The ancient world included Africa. People from Africa, certainly North Africa and also Ethiopia, existed all over the ancient world, traveling, trading, working, fighting. Graffiti from Egyptian soldiers sent to man Hadrian’s Wall attests to their disgust at British weather. Some things will never change.

And there are some ancient works of art which never get mentioned at all, such as the marvelous, splendidly realistic Fayuum portraits made in Roman Egypt. These were funeral portraits, made during a person’s life, to be used in attached to the sarcophagus after death. Recent scientific analysis has proven that the portraits, which show dark eyed, dark skinned people, appear to be of ethnic Egyptians, not white transplanted ‘Romans’. Once again, the concept of ‘Roman’ is not racial. And those portraits would have been made by Egyptians.

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However, once we have a concept of the ‘wonderfully white’ ancient world, and the Europe sanitized of all nonwhite inhabitants, we then get a completely different perspective on the reality of black presence in Europe. Yet, any kind of historical sense makes it clear that could never have possibly been true. Even a casual glimpse at trading patterns across Europe would make it clear that there was a constant two-way traffic between North Africa the Middle East and much further beyond. It is probably true that, then as now, urban areas were more diverse than rural areas, although even that may not be the case. William Mulready’s 1835 painting The Toy Seller shows a black peddler selling toys to a white mother. Although we can’t take the painting as any kind of documentary piece, it does seem to indicate that the rural world was not quite as ‘bleached’ as we pretend.

Of course, the first thing we have to admit is that the actuality of slavery, forced us into a black and white thought dichotomy. The dichotomy of black / white, dark / light existed probably forever, but was not necessarily attributed to human beings. Because in the Mediterranean region and Persia (where Manichean beliefs about dark and light developed out of Zoroastranaism) people usually aren’t specifically black or specifically white, but have different degrees of pigmentation.

So, having spotted the black faces in the history of European art, what next? Actually, the answer was provided right at the very beginning of the symposium. The artist Kimathi Donkor discussed his own work as a painter, which interrogates mis/representations of black subjects in Western art history. His current research is on the the representation of Andromeda (according to Ovid’s story, an Ethiopian princess) who is usually portrayed as white. What’s really important about Donkor’s work is that he’s one of the few recognized figurative painters active in Britain today who portrays black subjects.  Yes, that’s exactly what I said: one of the few. I became familiar with his work Toussaint L’Ouverture at Bedourete, a powerful and strongly cinematic depiction of the Haitian revolutionary hero. I was really impressed with this painting, a remarkable piece in the grand tradition of history painting and, I think, a very important work.

One of the problems with art history, of course, is that with very few exceptions such as H.O. Tanner,  the one doing the representing is white. It’s only in the 20th century that we start to see a trickle of representing being done by black artists. But even those are largely invisible in terms of European modernism. One of the most stimulating presentations, which is saying something in a day full of stimulating presentations, was by Prof. Partha Mitter. Discussing the work of Jamani Roy. I didn’t know anything about Roy before but what Mitter talked about was the idea of alternative modernisms. I’ve always been interested in this, the idea that modernism has been interpreted purely from Eurocentric perspective, which if you think about it is absolutely ridiculous. Especially when you think about how the architects of modernism were themselves completely influenced by Eastern philosophies; one of the things most noticeable in the recent Matisse exhibition was how influenced Matisse himself was by Moroccan visual culture. This limited approach to something as universal as art-making leaves out Egyptian modernism for example, as well as the whole of Latin America, Africa and Japan. The art market may reward the Eurocentric interpretation of modernism, but why should we?

The symposium didn’t really address the subject which I left wondering about, which is how to get all of this fantastic research into the broader public discourse. Where are the art history television programs that present this art history? Where are the non-white artists in the major prizes, and television portraits such as “what artists do all day”?

It is necessary, but not enough simply to spot the presence of black people in art history. We need to see them in contemporary art as well. We need to encourage and support artists who want to depict their reality, black subjects. Because these black subjects are part of our reality. The faces of our history, our neighbors, our friends, our families. Donkor’s work is significant and necessary, as is the work of artists such as my colleague, the London-based Egyptian painter Nazir Tanbouli.

The commercial demands of the art market does not seem to be interested, which is their prerogative. After all, they’re mainly interested in buying and selling, whether it’s arms or paintings. But once again, I have to say that we need to examine how and why the criteria of the art market is so accepted completely uncritically, not only by our media but sadly, also by the curators and critics, and those who are supposed to be nurturing our art tradition and building our artistic legacy.


presenters were:

Kimathi Donkor, Michael Ohajuru,  Temi Odumosu, S.I. Martin,  Michael Fisher, Caroline Bressey, Florian Stadtler, Jan Marsh, Gemma Romain, Roshan McClenahan and Partha Mitter,  hosted by David Dibosa  and Sonia Dyer.


* Previous articles I wrote on this:


Art and Invisibility

Dis-membered from the Art World

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Dis-membered from the art world

Nubians - an alternative look at Ancientt Egypt. There's always another way to look at things.

 above, Nubians (British Museum). An often overlooked part of ancient history – yet it’s there if we want to see it.

Tis the season of the art prizes. I saw the announcement of the Catlin art prize today. I’m not really bothered about these kinds of prizes because as a filmmaker it’s completely irrelevant to me, but as a cultural critic it’s completely relevant and important.

There are about 80 institutions, probably more actually, across the United Kingdom that run validated degree courses in fine art practice. They all charge a standard tuition fee, and employ qualified instructors, who themselves have some kind of art qualification usually the master’s degree, plus some kind of meaningful experience in art practice. Of course, this isn’t always true; a number of institutions employ people who are not actually artists but have managed to bow and scrape their way through a PhD in art without actually making anything that anybody in their right mind would have any interest in seeing. But in my experience, for the most part, our colleges employ artists and people genuinely interested in an enthusiastic about art.

Now you might think, that with the national network of art colleges that includes the northern tip of Scotland to the southern tip of Cornwall, Wales to East Anglia and Northern Ireland, the British artists who make up the British art world might hail from all kinds of different art colleges up and down the country. But in fact it is not the case at all.

If you want to be part of the British art world, except in a few rare situations, you have got to be a graduate of the following institutions:
Goldsmiths College
The Slade
Central St. Martin’s.
Chelsea school of art
The Royal College of Art
all of which are in London.
Occasionally, an artist from Glasgow School of Art or, even more occasionally, a graduate of Edinburgh school of art is admitted into the ‘art world’.

I sure have no problem with these institutions. I haven’t been to any of them, but from what I’ve seen they are perfectly adequate places which do the job of turning out  graduates very nicely. But what I cannot understand at all is how graduates from other art schools so rarely seem to get picked for any of the major art prizes. Is it really true that graduates from our colleges in the rest of the country, Nottingham, Leeds, Cornwall, Bristol, East Anglia, Newcastle, you name it – none of them can step up to the plate and do art as well as somebody who spent their degree in London? Does study in London magically give you a massive advantage over anybody else, make you just a much better artist. Just because you can breathe the fantastically polluted air of my great city?

I live in and studied in London, and I love London and I loved studying at the University of Westminster, it has a fantastic film school and I can’t say enough about how brilliant it was. But I don’t think that I’m the better filmmaker then somebody who got their film degree outside London.

So I don’t really know what’s going on. I do suspect, however, that those art students who are paying 9000 pounds a year, plus to study anywhere than the above seven art colleges, might wonder if it’s worth it. If they have such a small chance of making it into the art world; if all the prizes are snapped up by the big seven. Actually, let’s be honest, the big five. The Scots occasionally have their day, but London takes the big biscuit. Isn’t it depressing, to be an artist in the fantastic city like Newcastle and be working your ass off, inspired by the incredible landscape and the wonderful small, high-quality art scene that the city can offer, to never see any of your colleagues winning any of these big chunky prizes? They don’t even seem to make the short list.

I had a look at the list of judges who judge many of these prizes, and I discovered that actually most of the judges have some kind of connection with the big five art schools. Very many of them are graduates of the schools, or teach or have taught in them. So what were seeing really is people selecting from a self-appointed pool of artists from places that they can relate to. This is actually incredibly creepy.

It gets worse.

Okay, now I’m going to offer a disclaimer here. A very good friend of mine applied for the Bow Arts Trust East London painting prize and didn’t get shortlisted. Actually, he didn’t give a toss, but I got pretty upset. I got upset, not because  they should’ve taken his painting; that’s not really important. I got upset because when I looked at the short list, it became quite clear to me that it did not in any way reflect the demographic of East London.

London is only 59% ethnically white British, according to the office for national statistics 2011 census. That means that a full 40% of people in London are from some other ethnic group. Tower hamlets, in the East End of London, has a white population of only 45.2%, according to the same census, and this includes white non-British. The statistic for Hackney is pretty much the same. These two boroughs are very popular with artists and have large vigorous artist communities. Let us not pretend that all of the artists in these two boroughs are  white British.

Yet when you look at the short list of artists chosen for the East London painting prize, which is only for people who live in East London,  there isn’t a single name which we could associate with, for example, the large Turkish and Kurdish population of Hackney.  There isn’t a single name which we could associate with the Nigerian or African population of East London. Nor was there a single name that we could associate with Asian, particularly Islamic Asian people, who make up a large sector of the Tower Hamlets population. Not even a Pole. I know I am only going by names and I don’t know the artists who are on the list (but I did look at their websites).

Because I live in East London. I know that there are artists with different backgrounds, yet there is no visibility of them whatsoever in these art prizes; and there is  little visibility of them in the mainstream galleries, which leads me to believe there are very few opportunities for artists – or  young people who would like to be artists – who come from ethnic minority backgrounds. Even when, and this is my point, they are not even ethnic ‘minorities’ within the community. In London there isn’t an ethnic majority really; everybody’s an ethnic ‘minority’, we’re so mixed.

There are actually Turkish and Kurdish artists in Hackney. There are British-born artists from Asian, African and Chinese backgrounds. There are kids from Afro-Caribbean and Vietnamese backgrounds doing art at A level. There are plenty of Polish, Czech, and Bulgarian artists active in East London today. Yet is not a single Polish name on any of these shortlists. It’s just weird. It’s just wrong. The East London art world, at the very least, should be reflective of who is living and practising in East London.

Obviously this is a culture, and those who perpetuate it are completely unaware that what they’re doing is actually perpetuating inequality of opportunity. That what they are also doing a stifling the creativity of London. It’s like they’re closing the window in a room which is already stuffy and unbearable. The fact is, let us say it, that the art world does not admit art that does not fit neatly into a very culturally circumscribed matrix. This is the “international” style, which is a tight compendium of Anglo-American, French and German aesthetics. Ergo, not actually international at all. If an artist who wants to express aesthetics outside of this sphere, he or she is relegated to making work “about” their ethnicity.

Now, toeing the “internationalist” line does not mean that you yourself have to be from this “Anglo-American/ French/ German” background. You just have to accept this aesthetic. Which probably means having studied at one of the Big 5 art schools and imbibing their aesthetic and cultural rules.  There no prizes for creating art which somehow, consciously or unconsciously, expresses an alternative aesthetic.

Let us not forget, that the history of art is not universal. What we accept as art history is a colonial programme. If we just look at modern (20thC) art we have to accept that there are alternative modernisms. Modernist Persian, Egyptian, Latin American, African.These artists are judged however, by how they adhere to the Western modernist programme. Just as an example, the recent show at tate of Ibrahim El Saheli. Of all the African or Arab artists they could have given a solo show to, they have to choose someone who was “approved” by a spell at the Slade, or the Beaux-Arts or somewhere, that teaches the Internationalist curriculum in one of the core Western centres of dominance.

Back to the unrepresentative demographic of the art prize.

There are people who would really celebrate this and say “Why should we open up our art world, our art fundings and our art prizes to immigrants?” The answer is really obvious, which is that art is always been an itinerant practice, and the artists have always moved around from place to place looking for opportunities. This is what made the Renaissance, made the Baroque.  English painting wouldn’t really have existed without Dutchmen like Holbein and VanDyke turning up here to set the standard. And how could we have has Gothic without Fuesli?

But anyway, I don’t think actually people in the art world, are particularly racist. After all, we are quite happy to embrace those art stars from abroad who made it big and then turn up in London. And the art world has occasionally allowed the minority artist to slip in under the railing. Yet I now see how how difficult it must be for them, how much harder you would have to work to get there.

No, I don’t really think they’re racist but I do think that they tend to choose people like themselves, who look like them, who talk like them, who been to the same schools. Who subscribe to the same ideology, and who don’t shake their coveted ideology. It’s a problem at the national level because that’s how the government is run, and it’s also how the art world is run. It’s bad, it’s wrong, and it can not go on.


May 23, 2014 · 8:00 pm

Castiglione, Lost Genius – my review of the show

this is my review, published in the A-N

Castiglione, Lost Genius

There was initial confusion about this exhibition, because I had confused Giovanni Castiglione the Baroque painter, with Baldassare Castiglione the Renaissance writer. Therefore, I went to the Queen’s Gallery expecting some kind of exhibition around the life and times of the writer of The Courtier. The reason for this is that Giovanni Castiglione is little known, except to specialists. Happily, however, the exhibition was a real eye-opener, absolutely fascinating and a real treat.

The exhibition largely consists of two particular techniques that Castiglione invented: the monotype and the oil sketch. The monotype, which is widely used today, involves drawing directly onto the plate, and then manipulating it – so the end result has some element of chance in it. The oil sketch is even riskier. Castiglione drew using thin oil paint directly onto untreated paper. This had to be done extremely quickly, so that the oil didn’t over-soak into the paper, thus spoiling it; but it also meant that it was extremely difficult. Unlike oil painting, there is no going back and fixing anything. Unlike watercolor or ink, there is no applying water to diffuse a line. Once you put the oil onto the paper, that’s it. And so it is marvelous when you look at the complex compositions, extremely lively, full of movement and drama that Castiglione produced using this technique.

Castiglione was well known in his time for extremely successful rendering of animals, and there are a number of examples in this exhibition. He had no inhibitions about drawing domestic animals such as cattle and other common creatures; their representations are as dynamic and as faithful as his representation of humans. He shows animals as creatures in their own right, powerful and prominent within the composition. What is interesting about the oil sketches is that it appears that most of them are actually finished works, not sketches for paintings. The most accomplished of these is a series of portraits of Saints, which are highly dramatic and here he has used the oil sketch technique to achieve a powerful chiaroscuro.

Today, discussion of technique is almost entirely absent from discourse around contemporary art. This exhibition makes me wonder why. Why have we given up consciousness and appreciation of technique? Castiglione shows us how technique is fascinating, instructive and is truly the pathway to creativity.

As if to illustrate this point, the exhibition in the next gallery, called Gifted, which consists of many works on paper gifted to the Royal Collection by the artists of the Royal Academy. Gifted certainly shows the length and breadth of the Academy and the academicians, but it also shows that, certainly compared to the time of the Italian Baroque, we have have lost technique. Many of the works are extremely simplistic, both intellectually and in their execution.

And I mean simplistic in a negative sense. Picasso has been quoted as saying “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Let us leave aside the obvious hyperbole, as this is a quote from a master at the top of his game. (Picasso knew exactly how to play his audience and is one of the most consistently successful painters of all time. And he certainly didn’t “paint like a child.”) The problem is that this quote, taken completely out of context, has given a license to the last generation, at least, of artists to completely ignore technique. They don’t even reject technique because they don’t bother with it in the first place. The lack to technique in the works in Gifted is laughable. And they are not childlike – children usually work quite hard at their drawings and paintings.

Perhaps there’s another explanation for the poverty of Gifted; one might wonder if this is perhaps because the academicians in question are secret Republicans. But I doubt it. In the gallery there is a large oil portrait of the Royal Academy at the point of its founding in 1768. What the portrait shows is that the Academy, then as now, is largely made up of artistic nonentities.

I am ending this review with an address directly to artists: keep working on your technique, and pay attention to it; technique is important, technique is fascinating, It will allow you to do things different and probably better than anybody else. Technique will set you free.

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