Sweetness In a Bitter-Leaf

I should begin this as I mean for it to end; bitingly, honestly but lighter with every word typed. I hope.

With black liberation tied in to all scopes of our lives but expressed most beautifully and urgently through our art, the news of 61% funding cuts to one of the UK’s only ‘black’ arts organization, rightly sent me into a small panic. My own work and the work of my peers has been heralded as the new black renaissance, whilst flattering and appreciated this burst of visibility and popularity could potentially be counterproductive and lead to the reason why we peak too soon as artists, become complacent and in the worst case, to simply re-invent the wheel whilst making no real substantial change in the global art stage and more importantly in our communities.

In conversation with me Lubaina Himid declared: “For black artists to be given opportunities there have to be black curators, black academics, black collectors, black gallerists and black politicians and funding executives in place to influence the mainstream from within the mainstream; keeping the integrity of the margins from a position in the mainstream. It is not impossible but that is the way progress is made.”

Cecile, Kareem and I sat in a bubble tea room one rainy afternoon and did not leave for four hours asking ourselves and each other all the difficult questions. How do we take the space we need as black artists, rather than ask? How do we not lose sight of what’s important in the shadow of life’s difficulties? How can we best engage with young people who already show so much promise and vision? This communion we shared with each other was gentle and thorough, the kind of day-to-day collaborations all artists should be having. We left each other vowing not to lose our autonomy for popularity, but this is easier said than done and even easier to write.

I’ve asked myself do I want to be rich? To be exhibited internationally and written about in my favourite publications? Is changing the narrative of British art important to me? How does my art serve others? I get to communicate the best of what I have to say, yes. I interrogate my environment and appease my aesthetical agenda, great. But the cultural currency of being an artist does not convert to much value where my caribbean family are concerned. And to myself I wonder; what does my success as a black artist mean if I can’t save my brothers, sisters and children?

My eldest sibling is a paranoid schizophrenic who no longer recognizes me, the only way I can think to reach him is by mailing him a photo essay by me and to hopefully remind him that we are related both by the blood and by the process. I would send a copy to Mark Duggan too if I had another address for him other than his grave. In another life we would visit Pace Gallery in London together my arm hooked inside of his, walk up to the first floor and turn left into a large room with the new work of Adam Pendleton holsted on every wall. BLACK LIVES MATTER is affirmed on a larger-than-life vinyl wallpaper that looms over and engulfs us more than white men in uniforms ever could. We would raise our heads slightly, exhale slowly and breathe with new purpose because the work of another black artist washed over us like a new source of the Nile.

We know that art is not the most secure or welcoming landscape for many black artists with little monetary rewards but it is has often been for me the difference between being present and simply being alive. Art is visceral and every time I walk into an exhibition, art fair or museum featuring the work of Black artists I have the chance to feel accounted for, to mourn, to be full of glee, thankful and to stand in concordance. This practice of mindfulness and consideration, in all areas, is how we are saving each other.


This essay has been published in partnership with ARTS.BLACK.

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