Exhibition Review: The place is here

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A report by Isabella for the Oxford Student.

THE ONGOING EXHIBITION AT THE SOUTH LONDON GALLERY HOSTS AN IMPRESSIVE DISPLAY OF BRITISH BLACK ART FROM THE 1980S

Amidst ongoing debates around British nationalism, the new exhibition The Place Is Here at the South London Gallery is particularly timely. Centring on 1980s Britain, the wide-ranging display boasts pivotal works by more than 30 black artists which confront issues of identity and culture. Pieces in The Place is Here challenge historic colonial injustices as well as contemporary racial divisions. Working with paint, photography, film and sculpture, the artists address subjects from Thatcherite anti-immigration policy and police brutality in 1980s London to life in Apartheid South Africa and the black feminist movement. The show features those involved in the British Black Arts Movement of the 1980s, many of whom first met to define their vision for black art at Wolverhampton’s 1982 National Black Art Convention and again two years later in Nottingham, where this exhibition was first shown.

In the middle of the space, a short video ‘Roadworks’ shows the artist, Mona Hatoum, walking barefoot through Brixton in 1985. The heavy Doc Marten shoes tied to her ankles drag behind her. The boots, typically associated with the police and evocative of racist skinhead violence, impede the artist as she plods past bemused onlookers. As with other works in the exhibition, the choice of London, and Brixton in particular, prompts reflection on the local race riots in 1985 and 1981 and reminds the viewer of the brutality which threatened black Londoners of that decade.

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‘A South African Colouring Book’ (1974-5) by Gavin Jantjes, a South African artist central to the anti-apartheid movement, explores testimonies of those living under the apartheid regime. One image depicts Jantjes’ identity card, which labelled him ‘Cape Coloured’ to demarcate his rights as those allowed to citizens within this oppressed racial category. Details of the 1960s Population Registration Acts and extracts of statements made by Voster at the end of that decade, claiming that “the fact that they [black South Africans] work for us can never…entitle them to claim political rights,” (1968) clash ironically with the childish colouring book format and pop-art montage of each picture and make for a poignant and distressing reminder of the treatment of black South Africans.

Near the entrance of the exhibition, Eddie Chambers’ ‘Black Civilisation’ dominates the wall space with photographs of African sculptures and masks hung before a deep maroon background, surrounded by lyrics from reggae artist Burning Spear. These pay tribute to early 20th century black nationalist activist Marcus Mosiah Garvey: “He’s the first black man/Who bring Black civilization/Universally.” Created to commemorate Garvey’s birth, the composition of the artwork, with its regularly spaced rectangular postcard images of historical artefacts, is suggestive of a museum display case. It exhibits objects of significance to Africa, a welcome change from the Eurocentric focus of British museum spaces both in the 1980s and today.

The most striking piece from the collection stands at the entrance to the gallery, ‘Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain so Great’ by British Afro-Caribbean artist Sonia Boyce (1986). Drawn in charcoal, watercolour and pastel, four bold panels display large crosses, each identified with a past British colony, in front of a background of brilliant red rose bushes. Labels on each cross – ‘missionary,’ ‘mission,’ ‘missionary position,’ ‘changing’ – subvert the moralising stance of Christian missionary activity with wordplay on the sexual position. Parodying imperialist propaganda with her William-Morris style background and illustrated crosses, Boyce mocks the false narrative of a glorious Christian empire which denies the suffering involved in Britain’s colonial past. This powerful piece, which also featured in the Tate Britain’s 2015 Art and Empire exhibition, forces the viewer to meet the piercing gaze of the woman in the foreground, blank faced and watchful as she stares out from the artwork.

Working with paint, photography, film and sculpture, the artists address subjects from Thatcherite anti-immigration policy and police brutality in 1980s London to life in Apartheid South Africa and the black feminist movement.

In the centre of the gallery stands ‘We Will Be,’ a wooden cut-out of a woman by Lubaina Himid, from whose poem the title of both this piece and the exhibition itself is taken. The subject’s defiant crossed arms and sideways stare is coupled with the forbidding bodice of her dress, made up of the heads of drawing pins crammed together like chain-mail, and the ‘no’ scrawled repeatedly across her skirt. Her dress is decorated further with images of famous figures from black history, establishing her place in this canon of impressive individuals. Though the work is striking, artworks by Himid shown in Modern Art Oxford earlier this year and likewise created in the 1980s have more impact: similar cut outs to ‘We Will Be,’ such as ‘The Carrot Piece,’ would have held more weight in the exhibition, and huge installation and painting pieces like ‘Freedom and Change’ could have had more visual impact.

This collection of British black art focuses on one decade and is not arranged chronologically but instead forms a jumbled assortment of works in different media and styles. For the most part, this varied mix aptly represents a turbulent decade, though some areas of the main room felt cramped and the artwork would have benefited from more wall space. The movement represented here peaked fast, but it received short-lived attention, with black artists being largely side-lined since the 1980s by the mainstream British galleries (Steve McQueen and Chris Ofili representing rare exceptions). This fascinating exhibition does something to redress the balance and certainly lives up to its defiant title.

The exhibition runs in the South London Gallery from 22nd June to 10th September and in the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art from 17th June to 8th October.

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