The 1980s were a turbulent time in Britain: amidst the social discontent caused by opposition to Thatcherism came more sudden, violent bursts of unrest. In Brixton, in 1981 and 1985, people took to the streets to protest instances of police brutality and institutional racism. This troubled decade is the focus of The Place is Here, an exhibition set between the South London Gallery and Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.
Pieces on show are by 25 black artists and collectives whose processes and output are mediations on the problems of the period. Topics such as race, gender and sexual politics, all major issues of the day, are ably dissected. These topics are too big, though, to be confined to a study of ten years. Instead, the work is situated in a much broader context. It engages with “Black art” from the Civil Rights movement of 1950s and 1960s America, apartheid, intersectional feminism and the collective goals of Pan-Africanism. In part, we see the result of wide-ranging influences: Sonia Boyce’s self-portrait Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain so Great (1986) has a backdrop of William Morris-esque roses, whilst Gavin Jantjes’ A South African Colouring Book (1974-1975) re-makes Pop Art motifs.
These are, however, firmly politicised. Boyce’s image also includes crucifixes, which frame caricatured imperialist propaganda posters. Her inclusion of the phrase “Missionary Position” has both sexual and imperial undertones, clearly commenting in both cases on submission. Jantjes, meanwhile, through his “mock-pedagogical” book, makes powerful statements about the regime of apartheid he lived under, and about the desperate need, in art at that time, for the representation of all voices. By making use of an existing frame of reference, yet differentiating themselves from what went before, these artists declare that they, and their work, are valid and deserving of visibility.
A programme of associated lectures, workshops and discussions begins with Alice Correia’s research on the Asian diaspora, and continues the theme of highlighting the practice and stories of individuals from minority backgrounds. In Middlesbrough, curatorial tours each month until October place the major concerns of the exhibition into a modern day context.
The Place is Here runs until 10 September. For more information: www.southlondongallery.org.
1. Actress Corinne Skinner-Carter in Dreaming Rivers by Martina Attille. Sankofa Film and Video Collective (1988). Photo Credit: Christine Parry.