Earlier this month the 2017 Turner Prize shortlist was released. Boasting two black artists, one of Palestinian descent, and one German, three women, two painters, and two over 50s (for the first time ever) amidst the four of them, the nominees show diversity in both their ethnicities and works. Personally, I was more than excited by this line-up because compared to the mundane bullshit that has been selected in recent years—over conceptualised to the point of incomprehension, and lacking in any degree of skill, sensibility, or aesthetic value—these four artists’ works are refreshingly different: full of purpose and genius.
In truth, the shortlisted shows don’t offer much innovation in medium or practise, but that
is forgivable as they hammer home their messages clearly and cohesively. Though very different in their presentations, the artists all launch dialogues on cultural and societal perceptions.
Lubaina Himid MBE—born in Zanzibar—explores black cultural visibility and history in her pieces. ‘Naming your money’ (2004), which is on display at the Spike Island show for which
she has been nominated, presents 100 life-sized cut-outs of 17th-century slaves. Accompanied by a soundtrack that discusses the transformations in the figures’ lives when entering Europe—such as name and occupation changes—the installation emphasizes the loss of black cultural visibility in British society and reasserts African identity.
Hurvin Anderson’s paintings similarly expose conversations between Afro-Caribbean and
British cultures in his barbershop displays and Caribbean landscapes. In ‘Is it ok to be black?’,
displayed in his shortlisted exhibition at New Art Exchange, Nottingham, Anderson highlights cultural vitality through portraits of Martin Luther King, Malcom X, and other famous black figures hanging on the blue barbershop wall.
In Andrea Büttner’s works, societal issues take prominence, as beggars’ grasping hands emerge from faceless hoods in vibrant woodcuts, questioning the way in which we judge those we don’t know. The last artist on the list, Rosalind Nashashibi, addresses external perceptions of other cultures in her cinematic work. The highlight of her contribution to documenta 14 in Athens is her film ‘Electrical Gaza’. In this half-documentary,
half-animation, Nashashibi invokes her Palestinian roots to depict Gaza from a native viewpoint, at odds with that which is portrayed so often in the media here.
Collectively, these shows reveal a shift towards a lesser glamourized, more eloquent side of the contemporary art world. Perhaps the representation of more substantiated, globalised work is, in itself, enough of a development—finally giving space to under-represented sectors and ideas. That would be so if these works were welcomed sincerely. But as commentary on the nominations has surfaced, it seems that these artists may not get the recognition for their talents and discourses that they deserve.
The Guardian’s crude headline read, ‘A cosmopolitan rebuff to Brexit provincialism’ whilst a
rather aggressive freize post by Paul Clinton—’The Turner Prize and Identity Politics’—likewise
appeared to self-righteously attack, perhaps unintentionally, Eurosceptics: “Of course, it’s
difficult not to hear echoes of Brexit Britain and protectionism in these responses.” Undeniably diversity must be defended, but the problem here is that if petty Brexit hysteria is to dominate commentary, the issues these works truly seek to promote—and indeed the value of the physical art itself—will be wholly overshadowed. Failing to engage in the debate about BME artists’ place in the art world at the expense of attacking Brexiteers will fail to make visible the invisible. This is illustrated by the lengthy list of comments under the Guardian article that argue ferociously about Brexit but mostly fail to touch upon the art itself.
The ineffectuality of this analysis is illustrated by the example of Lubaina Himid, who made a name for herself in the 1980s as a leading figure of the Black British Art Movement. Much of the work occupying her listed shows was produced in the decades prior to her nomination and tackles representation of black artists on the contemporary art scene. As she explained in an interview, black artists initially “weren’t [visible] on the television or the newspapers or media at all”. It seems that the press are still failing to make her purpose any more visible—instead of rambling on about Brexit, commentary must positively address the celebration of black culture and heritage that is concurrent in Himid’s works.
The Turner Prize nomination and recent multitude of acclaimed shows have started to grant
Himid the attention she deserves. But appropriating them in Brexit battles is therefore inappropriate. In an interview for Apollo Magazine, Himid recognised that resentment hindered the proper narration of histories. Though she was talking about the struggle of the 80s, this is a resonant message today. For the resentment surfacing again around Brexit debates appears to detract from the detailing of black cultural history.
For instance, a recurring theme is the repurposing of European masters to indicate the institutional void. In ‘Freedom and Change’ (1984), Himid transformed the two women in
Picasso’s ‘Two Women Running on the Beach’ (1922) into black women, their hounds dashing
before them, warding off racism. Her 1986 work ‘A Fashionable Marriage’ likewise repurposed
Hogarth’s ‘The Countess’ Morning Levee’ to offer commentary upon the position of black artists in cultural circles. The castrato became the art critic—dithering over whether to support the minorities himself, or wait until the art world gave permission—whilst the slave became a black woman artist. Symbolic of her contemporary place, the slave suggested that black artists then were still “signifiers of white corporate wealth, expensive to keep, but oh so decorative and useful for dealing with awkward situations”. They worked for nothing, without recognition. Her work is so much more than ‘rebuffing provincialism’ therefore—it’s about finding a place for black artists in the art world.
I’m not saying that these works don’t deserve the attention—far from it. But it is careless of
the media and art institutions to present the works in this light. Last time I checked, neither
Zanzibar, Jamaica, nor Palestine were in the EU. By appropriating the art in this debate critics are not only wrong, but are unnecessarily alienating the works via negative and exclusive language. Comments need to be phrased more positively to celebrate and engage with the diversity of the work—after all, the Turner Prize is intended to encourage wider interest in contemporary art, not raise further barriers.