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Black Modernism

The Little Negress, 1928
By Sir Jacob Epstein
Graphite on paper

THE UNTOLD history of black people’s contribution to London’s art world is being explored in a new exhibition.

The Spaces of Black Modernism: London 1919-1939 explores how cosmopolitan networks of artists, activists, writers and artists’ models helped shape the cultural and political identity of the city.

Dissecting the experiences and interactions of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds in London’s dynamic art industry between the wars, the display builds on the original research from the Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded project, Drawing Over the Colour Line.

Curated by Dr Gemma Romain and Dr Caroline Bressey of University College London with Emma Chambers and Inga Fraser of Tate Britain, the display includes paintings, sculpture, photographs and archival material.

Harlem, 1934
By Edward Burra
Ink and gouache on paper

“[We] were interested in exploring the black presence in interwar Britain, aiming to broaden the narrative of twentieth century British art history,” Dr Gemma Romain told Life & Style.

The team were partly inspired by the works of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance in the United States, where black artists, writers, musicians, art critics, dancers and poets created new forms of art exploring their experiences and identities of being black and American, as well as themes of sexuality, gender and feminism.

“Likewise, the black British community was as diverse and multi-facted in this period, and although recent work has explored black interwar life in relation to writers, musicians and activists, the art world is a space that has been overlooked,” the historian continued.

According to the curators, the display focuses on how the ethnic communities connected in London within different spaces where black modernism and art developed. In the interwar period, the studios, art colleges and social clubs of Chelsea, Bloomsbury and Soho became places of multi-ethnic exchange – which prompted the idea of 'Harlem in London'.

Deposition from the Cross, 1926
By William Roberts
Oil paint on canvas

It is the first time that portraits have been brought together in a display in this way and will give people the opportunity to see representations of black men and women, who were living and working in London in the 1920s and 1930s.

Some of The Spaces of Black Modernism: London 1919-1939 pieces have never been displayed in public exhibitions – as far as the curators are aware.

“We hope people come away with an enriched view of what life in interwar London was like, and that showcasing our research in this way stimulates further discussion about diversity in Britain in the modern period,” added Romain.

The Spaces of Black Modernism: London 1919-1939 is on display from October 13 2014 - March 29 2015 at the Tate Britain.

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