By Holly Downes
Christie’s ‘Bold Black British’ exhibition traces the legacy of creativity through diversity – aiming to acknowledge, showcase and celebrate the art produced by influential people of colour over the last forty years. Brought to life by renowned curator Aindrea Emelife, the exhibition offers a splendid and immersive introduction to names the industry has long overlooked. She presents viewers with her “utopic vision for the future” – a future free from the racial inequality that plagues the art industry and respects the voices of its creators.
This story is told through a series of multimedia rooms, packed with different mediums, from sound art to film, eloquently proving that Black creativity is not merely limited to the canvas. Moreover, with every piece being handpicked from different eras, her audience is guided down a timeline of Black artistry. From pioneering icons of the 1980s, like Sonia Boyce and her outstanding political work, to more contemporary names like Samson Kambalu, audiences are able to appreciate the depth and heritage of Black British art – which in the past auction houses and museums have concealed.
Throughout her interviews, Emelife has reiterated that “taking up space is resistance”. It’s an assertion that encapsulates what this exhibition is all about – taking concrete steps to make sure utopic visions don’t remain distant dreams. Literally covering Christie’s gallery from head to toe with the old and the new of Black art is far more profound a statement than any speech or press release.
By looking beyond white artists, Emelife is forcing viewers to challenge their internalised conceptions about art history, as they are bombarded with Black creativity from all angles. Emelife claims she wanted “people to go into the exhibition with one idea, and have other ideas leap out … at unexpected turns” – and she certainly sends her audience into a whirlwind of shocking realisations, as the knowledge they assumed absolute is challenged by a curator born to re-educate.
In this respect, Sahara Longe’s artworks prove particularly captivating. Replacing traditional ‘Old Master’ paintings with black bodies her portfolio creatively marks a time of liberation where black artists can reinvent and overcome a history of suppression. By intertwining our preconceived view of art with postmodern thinking, her two-metre-high oil portraits truly bring Emelife’s intentions to life.
It’s not all utopia though. ‘Bold Black British’ may seem intended purely to celebrate Black artistry, but this comes with complex financial qualifications. Every work showcased will soon be auctioned off through the Christie’s website, which advertises private viewings for those interested in purchasing Emelife’s hand-picked pieces. Rather than supporting the artists, the profits this process generates will go straight to the private auction house.
This seems contradictory. A desire for profit appears the driving force behind the goal to celebrate Black creativity. Longe’s beautiful portraits may commemorate the autonomy of Black individuals, but once they are successfully sold, Longe will no longer own the rights to her work. This would appear to verify the industry’s ‘common perception’ of Black artistry – constraining those of a different colour.
Nevertheless, Emelife has insisted that it really is all “about Black art not being a sellable fad”. Instead, the selling process is tailored towards “celebrating and recalibrating what a ‘platform’ is”. Perhaps, auctioning is such a deep-rooted tradition, that engaging with it is necessary to further diversify the industry. After all, excluding Black artists from auctions would only alienate them further.
The ‘Bold Black British’ exhibition is creating a new narrative, one that assaults the internalised prejudices of the art industry and gives Black artists the honour and respect they deserve. By giving the public an opportunity to learn about the richness, buoyancy, and liveliness of Black art, it marks a major step forward in striving for an industry that represents all cultures and races. In the words of Emelife, it’s reclaiming Black creatives a “space in art history that is long overdue”.
Illustration: Adeline Zhao
Image: RAS News & Events via Flickr