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Interference:s BLK Art Group Talk The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum by Jagdish Patel

Snow-capped mountains of the Andes mountain range

In November 2021, Marlene Smith and Keith Piper were in conversation at the Herbert in Coventry. The conversation was part of a range of research activities being undertaken to consider the inter-connections between the lives of the local Black and Asian community, the art institutions, Coventry University, and the local cultural networks in Coventry during this time. Jagdish Patel, a PhD researcher at Coventry University and artist based in Nottingham, shares his thoughts about the conversation.

The problem with asking nice working-class artists about their role in making history is that they remain humble and respond by saying simply, ‘we were just kids really’.  The work of the BLK Art Group is often described as ‘ground-breaking’ or ‘paradigm shifting’. However, during a recent conversation at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum with Marlene Smith and Keith Piper, we learnt that they were simply living, trying to make some meaning of their lives and learning to be artists (Smith and Piper, 2021). By doing this, and in a relatively short timeframe, 1980-1984, the Blk Art Group transformed the British art scene. The group was initially formed by Marlene Smith, Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers, Claudette Johnson and Ronald Ronney.

This time frame was a period of a right-wing turn in British politics, described by the writer Stuart Hall as the ‘Great Moving Right Show’ (Hall 1979), to describe the conjunctural moment, when particular social, cultural, and political forces came together after the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979. However, history does not move unchallenged. There was a widespread resistance, often led by young people, who respond not to the broad conjectural forces of history but do this by simply taking a small responsibility to interact and respond to things which affect them in their daily lives.

The conversation at the Herbert was part of a range of research activities being undertaken to consider the inter-connections between the lives of the local Black and Asian community, the art institutions, Coventry University, and the local cultural networks in Coventry during this time. As Eddie Chambers mentions in his writings, it is relevant to consider the wider network of references instead of focusing on one decade, to avoid the fetishization of the 1980s (Chambers 2021). When Marleen Smith was asked about the 1980s, she responded by pointing out that the “formatives years were the 1970s”. A period that saw Eric Clapton’s racist rants in Birmingham, the television series ‘Roots’, Rock Against Racism, the war in South Africa, riots in Notting Hill and the difficulties of growing up Black in Birmingham. The years that preceded the change are most of the times of key importance. If we were to talk to a younger generation of artists in the present day, we need to think about the events of the past decade, and the impact of those who grew under the shadow of climate change, austerity, the gig economy, Brexit, and now Coronavirus.

Learning about the Blk Art Group work is important, especially if you consider that it is only in recent times that we have seen major exhibitions by Frank Bowling, Denzil Forrester, and Lubaina Himid. The broadening of the British art canon has been slow. The opportunities provided to the BLK Art group by Wolverhampton Art gallery and the Herbert were, therefore, groundbreaking. As we learnt from the event, in 1983 at the exhibition at the Herbert titled PanAfrikan Connection, there were calls for the work to be taken down, which the group resisted as a collective.

This incident came after the first Black Art Convention in Wolverhampton which brought together not just the younger artists, but also artists such as Frank Bowling, Lubaina Himid, and Rasheed Araeen. As Marlene explained, Rasheed came to the conference with an important message about art and political consciousness, and Black and Asian unity, which ‘made sense to me as an eighteen-year-old, and still makes sense to me’ (Marlene and Piper, 2021).  These political discussions took place alongside work about the art. Before these events took place, they rarely talked about the work. As Keith Piper explained ‘when Lubaina started asking and discussing the actual work, we didn’t know what to say, we hadn’t talked about our work before’. For Marlene, this was an important moment, because as a young Black woman growing up in Britain, she felt isolated, not just because of the widespread racism, but also at home because ‘they didn’t really understand why I wanted to listen to John Peel’. When ‘I met people who had a similar outlook’ everything changed. 

Meeting Lubaina also made Marlene realise that a broader range of discussions was possible about her work, and she began to think that by making work in isolation she tended to think about the art college as the recipient of the work, rather than the broader community. For Keith, being at Coventry in the Art school was refreshing because the tutors wanted students to think about art, politics and the broader cultural work being undertaken in the community. In Coventry, students were encouraged to work both in and out of the institution: ‘being at Coventry made you think about the possibilities of art in and out of the art school… and how art and politics all came from actual lived experience’.

The role of art and lived experience for Black artists was first discussed nearly a century ago, by the African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1926 he delivered a speech at the Annual Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was later published in the association’s magazine under the title “Criteria of Negro Art.” (Du Bois 1926) In this article he argued that ‘all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda’. (Du Bois 1926) These words echo with such familiarity when we look at the discussions from the BLK art group. The issues of how Black artists make work, for whom they make work, where they place that work, and how they talk about the work, are as relevant now as they were in the 1980s or the 1920s. We keep attentive to this history as they are still being written.


Chambers, E. Eddie Chambers ‘Black Artists and the Fetishization of the 1980s’ (2021) in World Is Africa: Writings on Diaspora Art. Bloomsbury Publishing

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1926) “Criteria of Negro Art (1926)”. in The New Negro. Princeton University Press, 257–260

Hall, S. (1979) “The Great Moving Right Show 1979”. in Selected Political Writings [online] 172–186. available from <>

Smith, Marlene, and Keith Piper. Black Arts Movement in Coventry #4 with Keith Piper and Marlene Smith. Interview by Carolina Rito, November 2021.