Tam Joseph

Osunwunmi would like to ask the following questions:
Under-appreciation of their work is an occupational hazard for gifted
creative people of any colour; how does race factor into this, in your
opinion?

It might perhaps be worth using the word ‘racism’ instead of the word ‘race’ in this question. If we set aside all notions that creativity – and excellence in creativity – is not limited to any one type of people or group, it then follows that the art world ought to be effortlessly demonstrating and reflecting creativity and art practice on something of an equitable and comprehensive level. In other words, Black artists would be far more visible. But the art world is far from equitable. Instead, it is - in my view at least - the embodiment of racism and exclusionary practices. Unless we unpick the word ‘racism’ and its contemporary application, this statement about art world racism might seem harsh or melodramatic. In modern-day, New Labour Britain, the notion widely exists that ‘racism’ is a thing of the past and that ‘discrimination against coloured people’ belongs to a bygone era in which Herman’s Hermits were in the charts, big shops were closed on Sundays and Bristol City Football Club were playing top flight football. ‘Racism’ is now taken to mean that violent, aggressive, nasty expression that had its form in ‘No Coloured’ notices in houses with rooms to rent, or groups of drunken white men who went ‘Paki-bashing’ when the pubs closed. The last vestiges of this ‘racism’ were seen in the killers of Stephen Lawrence, people widely regarded by the media as symbolising the very worst of what this country used to be. The notion that old-fashioned racism has been consigned to history has led all sorts of people – keeping perfectly straight faces – to publicly declare that they are ‘not racist’.

Quite apart from the fact that attacks on Black people, or foreigners, or asylum-seekers, or immigrants continue to this day, old-fashioned racism has been replaced by – or joined by - an equally nasty and more insidious mind set that holds Black people to be okay, as long as their numbers are very tightly controlled and as long as they know their place, or are prepared to accept the spaces and places that have been assigned and ascribed to them. Within this thinking, Black people are not so much inferior or deserving of contempt; they are instead, just ‘different’ and need, with only a few problematic exceptions, to be treated as such. Within this particular scenario, the stereotype comes into its own. The notion of Black people as colourful and lively possessors of rhythm must be celebrated (as it was in the production of a set of Royal Mail stamps in 1998). Likewise, when it is harnessed under the Union Flag, the supposed sporting prowess of Black people must also be celebrated (witness the mood of national grief at Sol Campbell’s disallowed goal in the crucial match against Portugal in Euro 2004, or the jubilation that greeted Kelly Holmes on her triumphant return from Athens).

Yet the notion of Black people as practicing visual artists must be tightly controlled and policed. One or two can be allowed to slip under the barbed wire, but the majority must be excluded. If Black artists were represented in gallery exhibitions proportionate to their population percentage, we would certainly see many more exhibitions of their work. As it is, regular exhibitions of Black artists’ work (within regular exhibition programmes) are less common than hen’s teeth. Within this context, the under-appreciation of Black artists’ work takes its place alongside a consistent marginalizing of these same artists by the art world. In other words, white gifted creative people are disproportionately likely to make headway, compared to their Black counterparts. Contemporary Black artists are victims of this ‘new racism’ as much as their parents may have been victims of the old variety.

How you think the working environment for artists of colour in the West has changed since you first began curating and archiving? Do you think the strategies artists of colour might be advised to use in order to get recognition for their work have changed in the past fifteen years? After all, your curatorial practice has changed, what has that been in response to?

I think I need to refer to the previous paragraphs, in order to answer these questions. Historically, one of the biggest problems facing Black artists has been the pressure to accept or go along with prescribed notions of difference and ethnicity. Their practice has at different times been described as ‘ethnic arts’, Black arts, multicultural arts, etc. Now, in 2004, Black artists’ practice is widely regarded as being ‘culturally diverse’. In this sense, precious little (within the working environment for artists of colour in the West) has changed. Consequently, the strategies that artists of colour might be advised to use in order to get recognition for their work have not – in my view - changed greatly in the past fifteen years. Prescribed and nonsensical notions of ‘cultural diversity’ need to be resisted and rejected now, just as parallel nonsense about ‘ethnic arts’ should have been more widely resisted in the mid 1980s. The one element of consistency within the supposedly changing landscape is that white artists remain pre-eminently visible - and the hordes of white middle class women acting as their apologists within the gallery system remain in control and in charge. [Edited to add: “to the exclusion of other people, perpetuating a value system that I don’t agree with” Conversation with Eddie Chambers, 11 November 2004.]

This past year has seen the unsightly spectacle of many of the country’s most proficient Black artists clamouring to get their noses in the Arts Council’s cultural diversity decibel's trough. If any ‘strategy’ can be deduced from this, it is clearly no more than one of self-seeking opportunism. When it is applied to the wider and long-term needs of Black artists, such opportunism is about as much use as the Pope’s balls.

The most significant way in which my own curatorial practice has changed is that I have given up on a gallery system that is not yet prepared to accept Black people as artists, as gallery audiences or as gallery curators.

And finally, do you think the idea that the use of digital media brings a
whole new set of concerns to culturally diverse arts practice is a valid
one?

I think the concise answer to that is that I do not necessarily think that the use of digital media brings a whole new set of concerns to arts practice, as it relates to what Black artists do. Forms of expression change all the time. And each new and dramatically different form of expression brings with it a bewildering set of consequences and implications for visual artists and their practice. If we look back throughout the previous century, we can see that artists have consistently or regularly changed the parameters of what was considered acceptable art practice. The found object, the screen-printed image, the installation; these are just three of the distinctly different forms of expressions that artists have embraced over the course of the 20th century. Digital media is of course the most recent, but it will surely be eclipsed by other, newer forms of expression, as the current century progresses.

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