Tam Joseph

Whilst we might regard his oeuvre as being somewhat eclectic, nevertheless we should be clear and understand that in his time, Tam Joseph has contributed a number of memorable paintings that locate themselves at the centre of social and political commentary, often doing so in ways that reflect the artist’s characteristic wit, humour and perceptiveness. Typical in this regard are paintings such as ‘Spirit of the Carnival’ and ‘UK School Report’ for which Joseph is widely respected. The latter piece (dating from 1983) sub-divided into three portraits, shows the passage of a Black youngster through the British education system. Though unambiguously witty, the painting effectively addresses the miserable experiences of many Black youngsters at school. Within the first portrait, the neat and tidy lad is reported as being ‘good at sports’. In the second portrait, the best that his teachers can say about him is that he ‘likes music’. The third report is perhaps inevitable: a few years of under-achievement, alienation and disaffection have rendered him a problem, a youth with perceived delinquent tendencies and ambitions. As such, the sullen youth depicted now ‘needs surveillance’.

For a Black boy to be prejudicially labelled ‘Good at sports’ links that child to that almost primeval strand of racism that frequently suggests and sometimes insists that Black people are more physical than they are mental. That whatever skills they posses lie not in any intellectual abilities, but in their physical endeavours. ‘UK School Report’ laments the ways in which educational aspirations have been choked off, in favour of supposedly inevitable athletic excellence. Like Tam Joseph before him, Macka B had the measure of the education system’s treatment of Black youngsters when he sang:

“When a child says he wants to do O level Maths
And the teacher will say no and give that child a cricket bat
Or sen’ him ‘pon the field fi run a couple of lap
‘Cause they know he will do better running on the race track” (2)

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