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'Black people don't go to art galleries'

SEDUCTIVE: ‘Girl Before A Mirror’ is one of Picasso’s most famous pieces from the period and is on loan from the MoMA gallery in New York

A 'ONCE in a life time' Pablo Picasso exhibition will be launched at the Tate Modern in March and will focus on 1932 - a pivotal year in the artist’s life.

During this time, Picasso’s work reached ‘a new level of sensuality’, depicting much of what was occurring in his personal life. For instance – the interplay between his marital obligations to wife Olga Khokhlova and his steamy love affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter – a woman 28 years his junior. It almost came across as a ‘high art’, illustrative version of EastEnders – who doesn’t appreciate a good, juicy plot laced with secrets? The truth will always out. While there was a social obligation to keep up appearances insofar as his moral standing, his work from 1932 highlights his messy personal life.

As I strolled through Musée National-Picasso in Paris, alongside the other journalists on a press trip last December, it occurred to me that the condition of grappling with contending moralities, as depicted in this exhibition, is a universal one. And yet art galleries do not appeal to everyone.

It is a long-held belief that low income black families generally do not frequent art galleries, despite many being free to attend. This pastime is often seen as by-the-by and divisive; the gallery is seen as a white middle class arena, associated with social, cultural and educational benefits almost exclusively for that demographic.

I, myself, confess to feeling quite out of place, meandering within the gallery. On one hand, being genuinely impressed with some of the work I was seeing and on the other, feeling awfully out of place in unfamiliar territory. Having grown up in an inner-city council estate, the gallery was never on our radar. It never occurred to me, or many others who look like me I’m sure, that my heritage inspired many of the work found within the walls of these venues.

For instance, some of Picasso’s earlier work, from 1907 – 1909, was inspired by African art – his “periode nègre” (black period) or African period. He became an avid collector of African art, masks and sculptures that inspired him for the rest of his career. His plasterwork sculpture Bust of a Woman (of his lover Marie-Thérèse, 1931) can be viewed as a surrealist reinvention of his earlier African-inspired work.

In some instances, the question of a working-class black person frequenting galleries can still be used as an indicator of their authentic ‘blackness’. Not visiting might suggest that said person resides in the real world and visiting could well imply that they are ‘different’, which is usually a euphemism for being out of touch with their cultural identity. This judgement is made against the predominantly Caucasian backdrop of art which often renders the black spectator as the exotic ‘other’ and, hence, out of place or lost.

Award-winning cultural entrepreneur David Ose Amadasun penned an insightful article on Media Diversified in 2013, in which he cited the imaginative potential that awaits us in the gallery. He said: “This is not about a passive ‘viewing’. It is about entering into conversations, participating in art, taking up provocations – being moved.”

ART: ‘The Dream’

Sure enough, once I delved beyond the initial perturbation of being out of my comfort zone in Paris, I was able to unlock, access and relate to an interesting story of Picasso beyond his worldly fame – the man behind the canvas. ‘Picasso 1932’ not only highlights the acclaimed artist’s retrospective work, essays, archive photos and texts but unravels common misconceptions to reveal his common, human frailty – something we can all relate to.

Further to calls for the diversification of British art galleries, there are some art exhibitions which have been curated to specifically appeal to black consumers – last summer’s ‘Soul of a Nation’ exhibition at the Tate Modern, is one such example. More of this is needed, to appeal to diverse consumers and reflect the multiculturalism upon which modern society is built. On the other hand, other exhibitions can speak to human interest as a whole, enabling a niche black audience to derive meaning from them.

‘Picasso 1932’, curated by Achim Borchardt-Hume, Nancy Ireson, Laura Bruni and Juliette Rizzi, is a collaboration between the Musée National-Picasso in Paris and Tate Modern, which said it would be a landmark exhibition and “one of the most significant shows the gallery has ever staged”.

More than 100 works will be exhibited, including the famous ‘Le Rêve’ (The Dream), an erotic painting of Picasso’s young lover Marie-Thérèse Walter and, by loan, ‘Jeune Fille Devant un Miroir’ (Girl Before a Mirror), a jewel in the collection of MoMA in New York that rarely travels.

Picasso is widely considered to be one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. The artist and sculptor created 13,500 paintings and 300 sculptures, among other artworks, during his lifetime. He died in 1973 at the age of 92.

The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy is at Tate Modern from March 8 to September 9, 2018. Tickets are available at

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