Blog, Uncategorized

Carol Thompson on Black Art an’ Done Exhibition

We organised a workshop with the project partners and working group members at New Art Exchange on the 7th of December 2022. The project partners were asked to give a short presentation about an event or activity that they found radical and transformative in the history of their organisation. Here is what Senior Curator Carol Thompson at Wolverhampton Gallery shared with us.

Carol Thompson on Black Art an’ Done Exhibition

When I was asked to talk about an event at Wolverhampton Art Gallery that was radical and transformative in the history of Wolverhampton Art Gallery the obvious choice was the exhibition Black Art an’ Done, in June 1981, now widely recognised as the first exhibition of work by young Black British artists at a major public UK gallery, and a catalyst for change.  As Eddie Chambers’ exhibition guide states:

“This exhibition of visual art work by five young black artists, is the first of its kind to be mounted in Wolverhampton. It is a stride along the road to ‘somebodyness’ for the black community. These artists have all struggled to succeed in an adverse situation. We hope they will Keep on Keepin’ on.”

The acknowledgements began, “We wish to thank Mr Rogers and all of the staff at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, especially Mr Flynn, for their help.” Mr (David) Rogers (1942 – 1999) was Director of Wolverhampton Art Gallery during the 1970s and early 1980s and he goes down in the Gallery’s history as quite a rebel.  Mr (Brendan) Flynn, his colleague during that time,  has shared many memories of Rogers’ pioneering approach to curating. The Gallery’s scrapbooks testify to his daring: those from this period are full of newspaper cuttings with articles about Rogers’ ‘outrageous’ acquisitions for the Gallery – particularly his Pop art purchases, which caused several outcries. The Gallery is now renowned for its prestigious Pop collection and Rogers is largely responsible for this jewel in its crown.

Brendan Flynn clearly remembers the time when Eddie Chambers approached the Gallery early in 1981, with his exhibition proposal. This was the first time a Black artist had suggested a show and David Rogers didn’t hesitate to say yes. Chambers and Keith Piper were given exhibition space at the Art Gallery in the city centre, and a free rein. Brendan was Assistant Curator at the time, and remembers his role as simply helping to hang works. The curating was left to Eddie.

Black Art an’ Done was deliberately and powerfully provocative. The catalogue states, “the  group set itself a clear mandate to present work which remained aggressively relevant to the needs of both the Black community, and to those of society as a whole if racism was to be truly taken to task.” It refers to “seizing time and space in venues which in the past had been far too monopolised by the interests of white middle-classes.” Wolverhampton Art Gallery was taking a bold step in presenting this show but in doing so it truly opened its doors to the Black communities of the city. Claudette Johnson, a student at Wolverhampton Polytechnic at the time, remembers feeling empowered by the exhibition, which included hotly political works; Chambers chose particularly provocative titles such as God Save The Queen, Immigration, and Anarchy. For the first time, Johnson and other Black visitors encountered art that represented them and reflected their struggle.

Black Art an’ Done paved the way for several exhibitions by Black British artists at Wolverhampton Art Gallery over the following decades, and a small number of acquisitions. However, a period of much more significant legacy work began in 2013 when the Gallery was successful in securing major HLF funding through the Collecting Cultures programme. This enabled the Gallery to revisit Black Art an’ Done and acquire works by members of the BLK Art Group, establishing one of the country’s largest regional collections of work by these artists. Wolverhampton Art Gallery now holds important early works by Keith Piper, Donald Rodney, Eddie Chambers, Claudette Johnson, Marlene Smith, Lubaina Himid, Chila Kumari Burman, and many others.

This growing collection of Black Art has had a significant bearing on the Gallery’s identity and has enabled us to attract crucial funding and partnerships. It played a part in our bid to be one of the British Art Show 9 (BAS9) hosts in 2022 (curators Hamad Nasar and Irene Aristizábaldisplayed items from the collection in their ‘capsule’ show in Wolverhampton). It has also been key to our participation in current projects such as the National Portrait Gallery’s Citizen UK project, University of Arts London’s 20/20 project, and Art 365 Artists’ Legacies in the Museum. The Gallery’s Black Art collection and its association with Black Art an’ Done has also attracted EsméeFairbairn funding to develop community engagement and multi-perspective documentation for these artworks and other collection items.

The legacy of Black Art an’ Done continues to grow as we build our Black Art collection, provide better access to and interpretation for these works, and create a service which truly reflects Wolverhampton’s diverse population. Thanks to a bold decision by David Rogers the aims of Eddie Chambers, Keith Piper et al. continue to be borne out in the work of the Gallery and wider Arts and Culture service. There are many more strides to make along the road to ‘somebodyness’ for the Black community, but I’d like to believe that we’re a little further down the track than we were in 1981.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery will stage a major exhibition in Spring 2023 which seeks to explore and unpack the story of the BLK Art Group and its relationship to the wider Black Art Movement of the 1980s and beyond. The More Things Change… runs from 29 April 9 July 2023 and is co-curated by Dr Sylvia Theuri and Dr Ian Sergeant in collaboration with curators at the Gallery.

Image caption: Newspaper cutting from Wolverhampton Express & Star, June 1981. © Wolverhampton Express & Star