Why black Art MattersI was a sceptic, but diversity in art has been wondrous and may be its salvation – The Sunday Times – Waldemar Januszczak
Back in the Air: A Meditation on Higher Ground
Temple Station's Roof Terrace
7 October 2021 – 1 September 2022


Diversity. In the past few months I’ve had conversation after conversation with angsty TV producers exhausted by the demands of achieving it: the extra work involved; the expense; the added time. Above all there’s been serial moaning about the tokenism engendered by having to ship in people because of how they look rather than what they know.


I have some sympathy with these objections. If you’re making a film on a subject for which you cannot find a suitably “diverse” contributor, because they don’t exist, is it really useful to pretend they do? Probably not. So, yes, in my other world, the world of TV, the imposition of “diversity” from above has been problematic. However, in my first world, the world that really counts, the world of art, any such doubts have been washed away by a tidal wave of good impacts.


In art, the arrival of “diversity” hasn’t just been helpful, it’s been wondrous. A game-changer. Maybe even salvation. For evidence of this transformative shift go and see the latest Royal Academy Summer Show — words I never thought I would write. Selected by the British-born, Nigerian-educated Yinka Shonibare, the annual car boot sale of art has suddenly found a sense of direction and a joyous spirit. From the moment you walk in you can feel the difference.


The display is the usual mix of well-placed offerings by Royal Academicians, claiming their rightful slots; plus varied contributions from the frustrated time-servers of art; leavened with a sprightly set of amateur submissions. What’s new is the sense of direction and uplift given to this messy tide by Shonibare’s compass.


Calling his event Reclaiming Magic, he explains in the exhibition paperwork that what he seeks is “a return to the visceral aspects and the sheer joy of making art”. The sheer joy of making art . . . In my many years at the art critical coalface this is the first time I have heard a curatorial magus admit to themselves — and to us — that this is what it’s all about.


The opening room is startling. Flooded with an immediate sense of colour, variety, loquaciousness and busyness, it’s as if you’ve stepped off a drizzly Yorkshire moor and found yourself in a sunny bazaar in Lagos.


An eye-bending quilt by Sally Mae Pettway Mixon zings with bands of colour. A tiny fetishistic mouse in a lurid waistcoat, knitted and knotted by Marie-Rose Lortet, adds a note of homemade spookiness. Even the venerable academician Eileen Cooper gets into the spirit of things with a painting of a barefoot wanderer in a wood, hugging a friendly bear. I could go on. And on and on. It’s a big show. But by including so much handicraft in his selection — textiles, weavings, quilts, tapestries — Shonibare emphasises something that was driven home to me during the lockdown: that humans are hardwired to make art. In lockdown Britain everybody was at it.


It’s a point amplified here by the deliberate inclusion of the self-taught American artist Bill Traylor (1853-1949), who was born into slavery and only began making his poignant drawings in the final decade of his life. Pale, scratchy, nervous, Taylor’s jottings are thin in mark-making but thick where it counts: in emotion.


If a renewed faith in the handmade is one of the things that “diversity” has brought to art, another is the importance of storytelling and the need to remember. Look more closely at Betye Saar’s Red Ascension and you will see a symbolic ladder up which sails a fleet of symbolic galleons carrying symbolic chains across a symbolic sea. While Victor Ehikhamenor’s giant red wall hanging, The Holy King from the Sky, features a black salvationary deity, encrusted with crucifixes, who looms over the show and answers your prayers, because prayers are all you have.


As it is Black History Month, Shonibare’s exhibition has been accompanied on to the arts calendar by a full wave of like-minded events. Bold Black British, curated by Aindrea Emelife, has been mounted by the auctioneer Christie’s, stepping away momentarily from its usual role of flogging whatever it can for as much as it can. The show has a bit of difficulty feeling deep. But look how many of the displayed works — Samson Kambalu, Hew Locke, Sonia Boyce — are seeking to stick it to the Man. Christie’s putting on this event is like a rich guy going out to buy a lapdog but coming home with a cobra.


Much the same happens at Temple Underground station, where Lakwena Maciver, who is also in Bold Black British, has been handed a rooftop and commissioned to paint it. From ground level the results are invisible. Only when you climb higher can you see how fabulously this drab slab of London has been transformed by Maciver’s wild zigzags.


This, then, is what diversity has brought to art. A brightness and uplift that wasn’t previously there. A renewed faith in the handmade. A sense of direction that was missing. Fresh air, fresh blood, fresh energy. So loud and obvious is this message that you’d need to be emotionally deaf not to hear it.


Unfortunately Tate Britain seems to be exactly that. The gallery’s addiction to electronics is an eco-destructive madness. Heaven knows how many rainforests have had to be cut down to fuel the obsession it has with lights, monitors, videos and computers. Its offering for Black History Month is a throbbing nocturnal disco display by an artist who was previously known, I read, as Last Yearz Interesting Negro, but who these days calls herself Serafine1369.


Serafine gives us a dark room in which she poses on a plinth and gyrates blurrily to the sounds of computer throbbing. Her depressing electronic dirge has the added disadvantage of feeling chronically old-fashioned. It’s as if the 1990s are back and we’ve all turned up at a disused air hangar in Essex for a late-night rave.


Hilariously the new display appears in the slot called Art Now. They really need to rename it Art Then.


Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London W1, until Jan 2; Bold Black British, Christie’s, London SW1, until Oct 21; Art Now, Tate Britain, London SW1, until Jan 3

17 October 2021
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