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Black British Serial Publications 1977-1993

Courtney J. Martin

There were nearly a dozen serial publications devoted to black art and artists that proliferated throughout Britain from the late 1970s through the 1990s. The actual journals, magazines, leaflets, pamphlets, and fliers are a fascinating chronicle of the evolving subjectivity of black British artists as artists and as British subjects. The magazines chart the intra-national shifts in identity between and among Caribbean, African, Indian, and other ethnic minorities in Britain’s post-colonial metropoles. These publications mark not only the urgency of Britain’s attempt to re-define its nation-state, but also the continuing presence of black Britons that date to antiquity. Artists serve as a test case for the reformulation of blackness and Britishness. These texts position visuality and circulation as key components in the larger process of documentation and reformulation of black British subjectivity.

Black Phoenix was the first of these texts, which, varying in length of distribution, frequency of output, and layout style, formed a corpus of representation that assessed and aided the black British arts movement. Black British artists relied upon print culture to document, to critique, and to disseminate their artwork. Black Phoenix and its continuation, Third Text, created a model for publications that critiqued contemporary art practice, reviewed art and exhibitions, reproduced art, and created and maintained critical dialogue for and about artists and their work.

Despite their significance, these publications had limited runs, possessed relatively small areas of distribution, and were printed with low-quality material. This project will engage the periodic print matter that served the black British arts movement by demonstrating that these texts, due to the limits of their initial publication, the fragility of their composition, and the historical rarity of their content, may function as art objects rather than artifacts. It is precisely their creation and present obscurity that lends them an objecthood similar to that of the artworks that they chronicle. Within the pages of these texts lie the various arts and community organizations that supported the artists and their work, advertisements for and critical analysis of the exhibitions that formed the canon of black British arts production, and the crucial intersections of images, text, and dissemination that helped shape our historical understanding of this period, such as the complexity of the racial and political category black.

My larger project engages the various components of black artistic practice in Britain as well as the methodologies of post-coloniality, critical theory, and visual culture. As such, by re-constructing this print archive, I challenge the notion of art objects as pure representation. Rather, the politicized position of black artists during this period is not divorced from local, national, continental, or global political or theoretical interventions. I would hope to engage with other scholars who are working in the late 20th century, regardless of discipline, in other parts of Europe to explore this time period as a site of shifting blackness, not unlike the late 19th century. Further, I would like to think through the problems of nationhood for black European citizens and black European immigrants and refugees. Do recent patterns of immigration challenge the reliance of black subjectivity on the ideal of Diaspora?

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