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Some History, Some Identity, Some Notions of Nation and Nationality in the Work of Some British-based African-Caribbean Artists of the Contemporary Period

Eddie Chambers





When considering the range and the nature of visual arts practice within the African Diaspora, the work of a number of British-based artists has a particular significance and relevance to ongoing debates about history, identity and location and how such debates correspond with social and political agendas and comment. I am interested in examining the work of artists such as Tam Joseph, Keith Piper and Donald Rodney – British artists born in the Caribbean or born to parents from the Caribbean – and the ways in which their work does much to illuminate and involve itself in the afore-mentioned debates.

I am interested in the curious space created when ‘Blackness’ and ‘Britishness’ come together. ’Curious’ because it could be argued that Blackness and Britishness are, to all intents and purposes, mutually exclusive conditions. And yet, there is no denying that Black people have forged an enduring and apparently permanent space for themselves as Black Britons, though the unqualified designation of ‘Britons’ or ‘British’ – with no racial adjective to act as a limiting prefix – still seems a long way off.

The most consistent and perplexing visual spectacle of the apparent ‘Britishness’ of Black people occurs within the sporting arena. The media has produced no end of images depicting and celebrating the ‘Britishness’ of the Black sportsperson, and countless images abound of athletes and boxers draping themselves in the Union Flag. This unqualified and enthusiastic designation of ‘Britishness’ is of course not unproblematic. It is after all within the sporting arena that Black people are frequently ‘allowed’ to excel, thereby recalling the seemingly primeval prejudice that states that Black preople are more ‘physical’ than they are ‘intellectual’. Likewise, within the sporting arena – football in particular – the most vociferous forms of racism have regularly been aimed at Black footballers by ‘fans’ of the game, on the streets and from the stadium terraces. Meanwhile, in contrast to the Lennox Lewises and Linford Christies of this world, many Black people in Britain, outside of the sporting arena would, if given a choice, distance themselves from, rather than drape themselves in, the Union Flag.

In this context, what, if anything, constitutes a ‘national identity’ for Black people in Britain? What factors contribute to a sense of identity, given that so much of the country’s Black population is now British-born, rather than immigrant? How do Black visual artists in Britain visualise Blackness? How do they visualise Britishness?

I would like to present a conference paper that looks at and discusses some of the ways in which Black artists’ practice has touched on and drawn from elements of history and cultural identity in the ongoing quest to fashion an understanding of what it means to be Black in Britain in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

And with artists such as Steve McQueen, Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili achieving such dazzling successes, what place, if any, for their practice in debates about Black British identity?

For the past twenty five years I have been engaged in active research into Black visual artists in Britain and beyond. Please refer to my shortened CV attached or visit my web site www.eddiechambers.com

Potential questions for the workshop:

  • What, if anything, constitutes a ?national identity? for Black people in Britain?


  • What factors contribute to a sense of identity, given that so much of the country?s Black population is now British-born, rather than immigrant?

  • How do Black visual artists in Britain visualise Blackness?

  • How do Black visual artists in Britain visualise Britishness?

  • With artists such as Steve McQueen, Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili achieving such dazzling successes, what place, if any, for their practice in debates about Black British identity?



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