Black Arts in contemporary Britain – Abstracts


Francesco Cattani, Swamping the country: Ingrid Pollard’s cartography of Englishness

The British-Guyanese Ingrid Pollard’s photographs, in their apparently harmless simplicity, clash with dominant codes of Englishness and contest the idea that the Black British experience is typically and “exclusively an urban phenomenon” (Stuart Hall). The works collected in Pastoral Interlude (1987), Seaside Series (1989) and Wordsworth Heritage (1992) stage a cultural and geographical investigation of the multi-ethnic topography of British culture.
Playing on common old fears of invasion by immigrants, Pollard’s pictures display how prejudices and preconceptions turn into patterns of representation and grids of distribution. By simply placing her Black subjects in the countryside (the historical, patriotic, English country), and staging their holidays more than their jobs, Pollard examines the accepted and acceptable ways of looking back at and construing the myth of a white, homogeneous landscape populated by local characters.
These spatial representations become a vehicle for a confrontation with the national heritage: where does the Black British experience belong to? What does belong to the Black British experience?
Combining personal, intimate, images with traditional, public views of the English countryside, Pollard questions the concept of Englishness and discloses a visual exemplification of the fact that, as Paul Gilroy has underlined, the peculiar synonymy of the terms English and white cannot continue (After Empire).

Pietro Deandrea, Contemporary slavery in the UK and its categories

The number of enslaved people living in contemporary Britain is estimated at around 25,000. Their isolated existence is rarely documented; therefore, they have access to few rights and are often referred to as, ‘invisibles’, ‘ghosts’, non-persons’, ‘unpersons’. This remains one of the most controversial issues around the 2007 bicentenary commemorations of the abolition of the Slave Trade.
By focusing on both investigative research and fictional works, this presentation emphasizes the fragmented, scattered nature of this phenomenon, due to its illegal, hidden nature. The apparently respectable British house, the cultivated field, the truck container and the picturesque beach (to mention but a few) have all become a potential site for these new forms of bondage, thus intensifying the haunting presence of these undocumented migrants throughout the country.
These reflections start from Agamben’s vision of the concentration camp as the emblematic paradigm of our times, as the place of ‘exemplary exception’ where the law is suspended. Moreover, they try to show how, in today’s Britain, the concentration camp has been atomized, vaporized into a myriad of ever-changing, ever-shifting different places, thus embodying the features of trans-national capitalist mobility. On the one hand, the new forms that the concentration camp has taken are not easily reducible to any unifying concept; on the other, the challenge consists in tracing the continuum which underlies this variety of ‘invisible holocausts’ (Lal), all these ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ places where human rights are suspended, from detention centres to brothel flats.
Finally, studying the phenomenon of contemporary forms of slavery in today’s Britain requires a re-definition of key categories, such as ‘subaltern’ and ‘Black British’.

Adriano Elia, Pressure (1975): from Black Power to 21st-century British citizenship

Directed by the Trinidadian Horace Ovè and co-scripted by Ovè and Sam Selvon, Pressure (1975), the first Black British feature film, offers a lively snapshot of 1970s London and the problems of integration and identity. The film introduces the story of Tony, a London-born adolescent son of immigrants from Trinidad, who, after taking his ‘O’ levels brilliantly, unlike his white friends cannot manage to find a qualified job despite several attempts.
His elder brother Colin, born in Trinidad, is a Black Power militant who resents Tony’s initial compliance with English ‘white’ values and behaviour – icons such as bacon and eggs, fish and chips, and even the rockstar Gary Glitter. Tony’s alienation and disenfranchisement from the ‘English’ culture grow as he is forced to cope with his failure to find proper employment due to racial discrimination. He becomes involved in politics after attending a peaceful Black Power political meeting which was raided by the police.
A film like Pressure can be used to analyse various aspects of 1970s London life, notably the frustration triggered by racial abuse, in an attempt to compare 1970s and 2000s London in order to identify enduring phenomena (i.e., the ‘Sus’ laws shown in the film are reminiscent of today’s similar ‘Stop and Search’ policy directed this time not only against Caribbeans but, in the wake of the July 7 2005 London bombings and the following feeling of ‘Islamophobia’, mainly against radical Muslims). Pressure also gives us a chance to reassess what has changed since then, with the development of novel forms of third millennium citizenship as the possible outcome of the demonstrations and the social unrest of 1970s and 1980s Britain.

Francesca Giommi, The location of blackness in 3rd-millennium Britain

The British social and cultural arena has changed over the course of the twentieth century to accommodate sites of racial and vital difference, from class and gender to sexuality and ethnicity, but do 21st-century British society and culture really acknowledge the plurality and heterogeneity of Britishness in equal measure? Do they offer adequate space of visibility, expression and self-representation to everybody, despite class, race and gender? This presentation aims to investigate the location of blackness in the first decade of 3rd-millennium Britain, questioning especially the role and place of black artistic production within the national cultural arena and public debate, through literature, drama and film in particular. More than offering answers, I would like to raise questions for further discussion. Where does black culture locate itself at the beginning of the new century – if it’s able to do so freely – or where does mainstream culture relegate it to? Are black arts and culture still politically overdetermined as a site of ideological struggle, and, if so, which are the key cultural sites for black self-representation in contemporary Britain? Are the multicultural or transcultural labels practical or suitable enough to equally fit in the mainstream and its margins/fringes? Looking at the position occupied by black British artists and their work in the first decade of the 3rd millennium, I want to question the notions of centre and marginality as posed by Stuart Hall, of Homi Bhabha’s third space, and Paul Gilroy’s conviviality, to test their usefulness and applicability to the social and political sphere.

Amanda Nadalini, “A New British Grammar”: Jackie Kay’s The Lamplighter

Postcolonial criticism and theory have hardly engaged in extensive critical investigations of poetry (Hayes Edwards 2004: 2). While the novel has been widely scrutinized in its almost symbiotic relationship with both nation-building and individual identity formation processes, poetry still needs to receive the scholarly attention it deserves, possibly because it is a less transparent medium by which to recover the history, politics, and sociology of postcolonial societies (Ramazani 2001: 4).
Rather than simply making a case for postcolonial poetry, this essay aims at investigating how a specific subgenre such as the long poem has been revised and rearticulated by a number of authors of the black diaspora vis-à-vis the trope of slavery and the Middle Passage.
By concentrating on Scottish/Nigerian poet Jackie Kay and her epic poem The Lamplighter this essay will investigate how the complex dialectics between fragmented personal and collective histories, politics of the body and gender issues, the necessity of bearing witness and the difficulty of telling/representing, intersect to create what groundbreaking scholar Hortense Spillers has defined a new grammar (Spillers 1987). A long poem as well as a radio and stage play, The Lamplighter not only blurs traditional genre boundaries, giving birth to syncretic forms, but it also foregrounds how history and its heritage, conceived as a discourse, are forged by technology and the media as mediators that enact the transmission of memory.

Sara Parolai, Fighting for Human Rights: Black music and dub poetry in Britain

Resistance and rebellion against any form of oppression are the sources of a literary form known as Dub Poetry, which was born in Jamaica at the beginning of the 1970s and was then brought to Britain a few years years later. At that time poetry could represent a means to denounce the hard condition of black people in England, urging the youth to struggle. 1978 is when the album Dread Beat an’ Blood appeared, with the poems of the 1975 book with the same title, by the young poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who started to be seen as a spokesman for his generation of West Indian immigrants. Inspired by important Jamaican toasters, Johnson developed a special kind of oral poetry, written to be read aloud. It combines the spoken word with reggae music, which is an integral part of the poems and has the power of emphasising the words’ message. Oku Onuora’s Reflection in Red appeared in 1979, followed by Benjamin Zephaniah’s Rasta, and many others from the early 1980s onwards. Deeply influenced by African Caribbean oral culture, Dub Poetry has its roots in the folk traditions of Jamaica, in the Bible, and Rastafarianism. The paper dwells on British Dub Poetry and “sound system culture”, analysing the political and historical context in which it was born and focusing also on the contemporary production.

Alda Terracciano, Black British theatre: transnational politics and cultural practices

2007 witnessed the delivery of a significant number of projects and public events in Britain, aimed at commemorating the 200th anniversary of the parliamentary abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. A deeper understanding of the slave trade and its abolition also coincided with a wider acknowledgment of the achievements of people of African descent in the UK and internationally. Looking at my role as originator and curator of the Trading Faces online exhibition, the paper will offer an opportunity to share with colleagues the experience of researching the heritage of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in British performing arts, focussing on the dialogic approach adopted for the curatorial practice, and more specifically at digitized archival documents and audio visual material related to two key black British theatre productions, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John (Royal Court, 1958) and Zumbi by Marcio Meirelles (Theatre Royal Stratford East, 1995).
With regards to the curatorial approach, a number of issues intrinsic to this subject area will be explored, including the ‘intangible’ quality of the heritage of performance, cross cultural and inter-generational consultation practice, and public engagement. The African practice of ‘Orature’ – which implies a circularity of knowledge and a creative exchange between the performers and the members of the audience – will be referenced in the analysis of the theatre productions to illustrate the nature of black performance as a ‘total artistic act’ and a form of cultural and political resistance.

Itala Vivan – Enrico Dodi, Africa on My Mind: The Black British Architect David Adjaye

This presentation deals with the work of an architect born in Dar el Salaam, Tanzania, of Ghanaian parents and professionally active first in Britain and then internationally. It explores Adjaye’s hybrid inspiration, his use of African patterns and materials, and his association with other black British artists and intellectuals. His 2006 exhibition at Whitechapel, London, “Making Public Buildings: Specificity, Customization, Imbrication” is a manifesto of his Weltanschauung, emblematically represented by his 2005 Venice Biennale pavilion who made him famous in Italy and globally. The talk will be accompanied by a power point presentation.

Louise Yelin, Black Subjects, British Subjects: identity and self-fashioning 1967-2009

This illustrated presentation offers an overview of British Subjects: Identity and Self-Fashioning 1967-2009, an exhibition of contemporary self-portraits that I curated at the Neuberger Museum of Art in fall, 2009. British Subjects explores three interrelated themes: changes in British society and ideas of Britishness since 1948; diverse practices of self-fashioning and self-representation; and changing concepts of the self. Here, I focus on self-fashioning in the work of artists such as Ajamu X, Sodiq Babalola, Frank Bowling, Sonia Boyce, Tigale Hassan, Hew Locke, Ingrid Pollard, Donald Rodney, and Yinka Shonibare. Drawing on an array of strategies including performance and masquerade, crossing and passing, the representation of the subject as a collection of body parts or an exemplar of an invented culture, and the collaborative production of the “self” in self-portraiture, these artists interrogate the term “black” as a category of cultural analysis and produce the “new ethnicities” theorized by Stuart Hall. So, too, do John Kirby’s White Wedding, which represents the (white) artist as two brown-skinned men, and Sutapa Biswas’s Housewives with Steak Knives, which depicts the artist as a composite of the Hindu goddess Kali and the biblical figure of Judith. Taken together, I argue, these works look toward the civic nationalism and conviviality envisaged by Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, yet the recent attack on Housewives with Steak Knives by Hindu fundamentalists suggests that these have yet to be realized.