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Migration: painting our past

Colourful: Lubaina Himid’s Between the Two My Heart is Balanced, 1991

TATE BRITAIN is internationally renowned for housing some of the greatest collections of British art in the world.

Synonymous with typical Englishness, the famed museum is currently questioning the idea of British art through its new exhibition Migrations: Journeys into British Art.

Examining migration from the 1500s to the contemporary period, the exhibit highlights the integral part migrant artists have played in the evolution of British art. Curating part of the display is Paul Goodwin.

He believes that British art is not what the majority of people think it is.

“Migration, including black artists who were born here, is central not marginal to British art,” says Goodwin. “It’s not just black art, it’s British art.”

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Undertaking the task of showcasing the artwork of settlers who have contributed to the UK’s cultural heritage is certainly ambitious. But as Goodwin explaines, the exhibit is about pivotal times in art history.

“We can’t tell the entire story or include every single artist that has come from a migrant background, but we are putting the story in different episodes, different moments when art history in Britain changed.

“My section really looks at the 1980s and it’s quite a key moment because it’s when black art makes an appearance on the British art scene. Black art was radical, compared to the earlier generations.”

Paying homage to these artists, Goodwin spoke of great artists of the post war era, without whom there would be no culture of art as we know it.

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“In the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the first generations of Caribbean, African, Indian and Chinese artists came over as part of the post war migration, they were very influential in making works that contributed to the development of modern art at that time.

“For example, Frank Bowling came over to England from Guyana and he studied at the Royal Collage of Art in London. He was such a brilliant student that he won the silver medal in the annual Royal College prize, behind David Hockney.”

Despite coming second in the coveted art competition, Bowling’s work was considered too foreign for critics.

“At that time, a lot of British artists were drawing on popular culture and incorporating it in artwork for the first time. They were really interested in looking at modernism in the international language. The kind of art there was at that time tried to break with traditionally classical paintings and move into abstraction and use of colour in various interesting ways.

Goodwin added: “There was a big show in 1961 that announced the arrival of British art. They had the top artists, many of whom came from the RCA but Bowling was left out. The reason they apparently gave was that his work was not British enough and it had too much colour.

“Frank Bowling was a pioneer. David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, Alan Jones – who at that time were students – became very influential artists, and whereas the men mentioned became international superstars and went on to exhibit and become well known, Frank Bowling was relatively forgotten.”

Colourful: Lubaina Himid’s Between the Two My Heart is Balanced, 1991

Bowling, who believes his ethnicity hindered his career in Europe (see the Quick Chat With Frank Bowling on the opposite page) moved to America and became a very influential and famous artist. This course of action was not an option for the younger generation who by now had roots in the UK and refused to be ignored.

The ‘80s generation of artists were mostly born in Britain; they studied in British schools, and considered themselves British. A lot of their work was looking at the inherency of being black and British, which was a pertinent issue, because they were constantly being questioned about how British they were.

A decade known for upheaval and revolts, the voice of black Britain exploded during the ‘80s. The second generation of migrants were not as easily appeased as their parents. They did not dream of going back to their parents’ place of birth; they were proud to be black but also saw England as their home.

“They made the argument that you can be British and black,” says Goodwin. “And in fact, the black British experience was an important and powerful part of the British experience. Their main works were political and challenged the structures, but they still drew on influences of mainstream art.

“Up until that time, the issues of migration were not dealt with sufficiently in the work. But in the ‘80s, the issues of migration, racism and what it means to be black, came out for the first time.”

Himself a student of the ‘80s, Goodwin is more than familiar with the struggle that was faced by young black artists of the time.

“I think they were unfairly criticized for being overtly political, and journalists often ignored the talent of the work."

“The media just talked about the politics; they often talked about the anger and victim syndrome. They didn’t look at the actual artistic content of the work, which was pioneering.”

According to the curator, politics is precisely the reason why black art was kept out of mainstream galleries.

“There are complex historical reasons why black artists were not huge contributors to the mainstream, but it was essentially because their work was often seen as being political. Museums at the time tended to see black artists; they couldn’t see them as being British.”

Looking at the state of art today, Goodwin believes that while there are more well known black artists, there are less exhibitions about black art now than there were 30 years ago.

“Things have changed. Now, many of the younger artists have been shown at the Tate, but it’s paradoxical. On the one hand, there are successful artists like Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare and Steve McQueen; these guys have won Turner prizes and they are very high profile.

“But in terms of black artists showing black work, there has been a decline. Partly because black artists are not doing black work now. Many are doing work that is not related to blackness at all.

“The nature of black art has changed and it can mean different things now. Black artists now are, quite rightly, choosing to make a variety of work. But last year was the first time the Tate had shown an exhibit about black women. It has taken 20-30 years to get to that stage.”

Rejecting the idea that black people, on the whole, are intimidated by museums, Goodwin believes that the responsibility lies with the institutions to advertise the events properly within the community and make them aware.

“Until recently, museums weren’t making the effort to reach out to the black audience. At times when we do events surrounding black artists, black people come in droves. For example when the Chris Ofili show was on at the Tate, loads of black people came. And when I organised a late night event called Afrodizzia, over 10,000 people came to see that; the biggest audience in Tate history."

He continued: “It’s not a question of black people’s affinity with museums. Working class in general can feel intimidated by certain institutions because they feel that they don’t represent their community or culture, and they think they are very middle class spaces."

“Once you realise that these are public galleries, you get used to the fact that they belong to us all.”

Migrations: Journeys Into British Art will be on display at Tate Britain until August 12. For more information, visit

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