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Nation’s Finest, Putting Down Roots & Birthing

Marlene Smith

Nation’s Finest, Putting Down Roots & Birthing is the title of a multi-dimensional and inter-generational project by artist Beverley Bennett, commissioned by the B2022 Commonwealth Games cultural festival and curated by myself and Ian Sergeant for the Blk Art Group Research Project.

B2022 wanted a project that made reference to the rich history of the Black Arts Movement in the region and that reached 10.000 people in Coventry and Wolverhampton.

The Blk Art Group was a group of young black people, art students and recent graduates who came together in 1981 to organise eleven exhibitions of their own work and two national conferences through which they sought to bring like-minded artists and students together to discuss the form, function and future of black art. The group were active between 1981 and 1985, when the term ‘black art’ was still new and divided opinions. Their work addressed the condition of blackness, what it meant to be black in the UK and the issues around race and racism. 

The project Nation’s Finest, Putting Down Roots & Birthing calls on the legacy of the Blk Art Group by introducing the work that the group did in the 1980s to contemporary community groups in discussions; visiting two important collections of art at Wolverhampton Art Gallery and The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry; discussing the controversy of the Blk Art Group show at Coventry in 1983 (where there were objections to some of the language used in the artworks); and revisiting the history of the First National Convention of Black Art at Wolverhampton in 1982.

By introducing the two community groups in Coventry and Wolverhampton to the work of the Blk Art Group, artist Beverley Bennett opened up conversations about race, nationhood and belonging that were recorded and now form the narrative of a new film. The two protagonists of the film are Akaiah, 12, and Renaya, 10, two young gymnasts who belong to a club called Sandwell Flyers. They are beautifully shot performing with energy and grace. The film has now been seen by audiences in Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton and a billboard campaign based on stills from the film started on September 15th and will continue to mid-October.

The film is a way of speaking about the legacy of colonial power and its affects, direct and indirect on ordinary people in the West Midlands. By asking people to share their lived experience it creates a gentle but poignant critique of Commonwealth, and it is a timely reminder that the reality of life for some commonwealth subjects often falls short of its ideals.