It had the makings of a great day in Brixton. Before noon more than 50 artists from across generations had flocked to the Black Cultural Archives to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the British black arts movement.
It is not often you’ll find Britain’s foremost artists of African and Caribbean ancestry including Charlie Phillips, Keith Piper, Marlene Smith and Claudette Johnson, among others, gathered alongside emerging talents for a photograph inspired by Art Kane’s classic 1958 A Great Day in Harlem , which had captured the luminaries of the New York jazz scene at the time.
Wednesday was a day which Lisa Anderson, managing director of the Black Cultural Archives, has long dreamed of. “I thought it was important to make sure that each individual’s face, their individual personhood, was documented. And I couldn’t think of a better way to do that other than by taking a picture that captures a moment in time that people can reference for the future.”
It was well overdue, said Jamaican-born photographer Charlie Phillips, who feels Black British artists have not been given a proper platform. It was only a decade ago when Phillips garnered his own recognition after years of photographing notable figures across Europe and London’s African-Caribbean community.
“It just shows you that the institution has overlooked us big time,” said Phillips, 77, who was amazed by the number of artists present from the diaspora. “We are there, we’re part of the culture whether you like it or not.”
This Friday will mark the 40th anniversary of the start of the British black arts movement, which began with the first national black art convention in 1982 facilitated by a group of art students at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, known as the Wolverhampton Young Black Artists.
The group eventually became the Blk Art Group, and included artists Lubaina Himid and Sonia Boyce among others who were associated with it and went on to become key players in the 80s Black Arts Movement rooted in the politics of Thatcherite Britain.
“They bravely made a space for conversations that weren’t being had, to help themselves make sense of their artistic practice,” said Anderson to the group on Wednesday. “The legacy is what we see here.”
Among those in attendance was visual artist Claudette Johnson, also part of the Wolverhampton convention in 1982.
“That day 40 years ago was really exciting,” she recalled. “Many of the artists that have come to prominence were at that conference, and I met them on that day, so alliances were formed then and now I feel today’s event new alliances are being formed.”
Looking back 40 years ago, there’s very little documentation, said Johnson, who was compelled to attend Wednesday’s photograph in part, after watching a documentary about the inspired A Great Day in Harlem.
“I think I’m very keen to be part of something similar,” Johnson said, after seeing artists be themselves and connect with other artists of their time. There were however some notable absences from the crowd, she noted, including the Black Audio Film Collective, Turner-prize winner Himid and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, among others.
Over the years, change has been gradual but not complete, said Phillips. “My recognition’s been overlooked. It’s not my fault, because when I started to show my work they still expected us to be bus drivers or hospital workers, and I was shrugged, I was laughing at,” he recalled.
Bygones are bygones said Phillips, who is now focused on future generations. “We have to do our own thing, in our own way, by ourselves. But our government should start to invest more in us.”
For younger artists such as filmmaker Cecile Emeke, whose work explores the black diasporic experience, it felt important to come together between generations. “And mark time,” added Emeke, “because I think a lot of black British artists, our history, has not been documented really well.”
Multidisciplinary artist Daniel Oduntan who has been coming to the Black Cultural Archives since the age of four, agreed that it was important to invest in memories such as these.
“I say this thing a lot where, if you’re growing up together, you’re creating together, if you’re creating together, you’re adding to the cultural landscape,” said Oduntan, 38.
“Seeing us all here just shows that we are here. Brixton is changing. London is changing. I think it’s important that we document these moments before they disappear.”