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Welcome to bba80, an archive relating to Black British Artists working in the 1980s or, to be more precise, those active during the ten years from from 1983 through to 1992. The website is the digitised form of an accumulation of posters, private view invitations, press releases, catalogues and other items collected at the time.

Although by no means completely comprehensive and, perhaps ironically, containing relatively few images of the actual artworks that were then being produced, the archive nevertheless presents what I think is a fair representation of the situation for Black British Artists working in this exceptional decade – indicative of both the available opportunities and limiting constraints. As a quick scan through the archive reveals, it was a vibrant, exciting and interesting period. There were a lot of Black Artists at work (over 300 names are listed here) and a lot of exhibitions were taking place (around 140 shows from over 50 galleries and other display spaces are also referenced).

Then again, very very few of those exhibitions were staged at commercial gallery spaces; amongst the larger public spaces only the Hayward Gallery makes any appearance at all; and when it comes to the medium-sized, second tier, grant-funded galleries (like the ICA, Camden Arts or Serpentine), well, they generally seemed to be uninterested and unconcerned by the historical under-representation of Black Artists in their exhibition programmes. At least, they were until their main source of funding, the Greater London Council, alerted them to the situation and pressured them to rectify it. The argument presumably being that since these spaces were ultimately funded by contributions from all the rate-payers and tax-payers of the capital, there was a moral and fiscal obligation to reflect the totality of that population and the diversity of its cosmopolitan demographic.

The policy undoubtedly had some successes but, perhaps unsurprisingly, when Mrs Thatcher terminated the GLC in 1986, most of those galleries very quickly reverted to type, lost their interest in Black Art and Artists and, wittingly or unwittingly, reinstigated what some might suggest were their previous institutional biases. This attitude is perhaps best exemplified by the ICA which is well known for having staged the rightly celebrated The Thin Black Line exhibition although, in fact, Lubaina Himid (the show’s guest curator) presumably chose the title as an ironic jibe at the ICA’s miserly directors who, having graciously offered her the chance to curate an exhibition, then confined her display area to just a thin corridor and half a staircase (while the large main gallery and secondary, upstairs spaces went respectiveley to shows about the paedophile architect Adolf Loos and some other relatively unknown video artist). As far as I can tell, there’s then a wait of twelve years before any other Black British Artist gets to show at the ICA (Steve McQueen in 1999) which is pretty much what Eddie Chambers predicted at the time.

Anyway, of the three spaces that had done most to promote the work of Black Artists – The Black-Art Gallery, the Horizon Gallery and Brixton Art Gallery – all suffered from funding cuts that ultimately led to their untimely closures (while all of the more established, establishment galleries happily carried on and are all still around to this day).

Aside from the termination of the GLC, there were perhaps other art historical currents whirling around at the time that also contributed to the demise of what might perhaps be described as a nascent BBA movement. Indeed, if the artists attached to that very loose grouping were frequently connected by a shared interest in using figurative, representational methods to examine and critique what might broadly be described as socio-politcal themes, the counter-acting force, as exemplified by the YBA phenomenon, was much more ruthlessly dedicated to exploring and perhaps celebrating a commercial, advertisement-based aesthetic and the much more marketable and promotional themes of marketing and promotion.

Well, that’s my personal take on how things were at the time. At which point, it seems appropriate for me to declare my own minor, foot-note role in this historical narrative. While neither Black, nor any longer an artist, in the 1980s I was a Constructivist and occasional Muralist and, perhaps more relevantly, a founding member and director of the Brixton Artists Collective, helping to run Brixton Art Gallery (from 1983-86), as well as being the art critic of TNT Magazine, writing under the pen name of Arthur Berman (from 1983-91). While these minor roles on the fringes of the capital’s artworld might have lacked kudos, glamour and certainly financial reward, they nevertheless provided excellent opportunities to gather together the ephemera that has gone to make up this archive and also, incidentally, help to explain why material from Brixton Art Gallery and reviews from TNT Magazine are particularly well represented therein.

Rita Keegan and Andrew Hurman on the opening night of the Brixton Artists Collective Members Show, Brixton Art Gallery, 30th November 1985.

Anyone interested in a more thorough and perhaps less biased examination of this artistic period is recommended to read Black Artists in British Art by Eddie Chambers – the definitive study of the subject written by someone far more qualified and knowledgeable than myself. Also recommended is Nick Aikens’ The Place is Here: The Work of Black Artists in 1980s Britain; Iniva’s Recordings: A Select Bibliography of Contemporary African, Afro-Caribbean and Asian British Art and the web archive new.diaspora-artists.net – despite the fact that the role played by Brixton Art Gallery is somewhat under-represented in all the above and the writings of Arthur Berman are entirely omitted. And another excellent new research tool: What is Black Art? Edited by Alice Correia.

Incidentally, the full Brixton Art Gallery archive can be found at www.brixton50.co.uk.

Finally, on a practical level, it should be noted that the headings ‘Catalogue’ and ‘Review’ have been used in their very broadest sense to include everything from fully bound and published books to the simplest of single sheet xerox copying, and from full-page articles to single-paragraph listings. Apologies are also offered for the fact that not all of the images can be enlarged to a readable format – I’m happy to send out copies that are enlargeable to anyone requestng them.

Andrew Hurman, March 2022
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