This month, the United Kingdom celebrates Black History Month. First started in 1987 by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, who worked as an coordinator of special projects on Greater London Council, this celebration of the art, culture and contributions of People of Colour has gained momentum in the last thirty years. Within the art world, Black British artists have become a force to be reckoned with in the last several decades and beyond.
One artist who has continued to have commercial success on multiple continents is the painter Chris Ofili. Ofili, who is also a member of the YBA (Young British Artists), (a group of artists who began exhibiting together in the late 1980s), has gone on to receive critical acclaim across the globe. Born in Manchester in 1968, Ofili would be the youngest recipient of the British Turner Prize.
Ofili first studied painting at the Chelsea School of Art from 1988 to 1991 then went onto to the Royal College of London until 1993. Over the years, Ofili has become known for his expressive canvases which utilize a multitude of colours, materials and imagery. His work involves a building up of layers using paint, elephant dung, glitter, resin and other mediums.
His art first started to come onto people’s radars internationally after the 1997 exhibition Sensation, put on by Charles Saatchi. While Ofili had been part of other exhibitions, this was in many ways his breakout show; and put him on the map as being one of the only artists of colour to stand out from his other YBA peers.
In 1999, as part of the traveling version of Sensation, Ofili found himself at the centre of a controversy when his painting, The Holy Virgin Mary, was on display at the Brooklyn Museum. The painting became the subject of a lawsuit between the then mayor of NYC Rudy Giuliani and the museum. The painting depicted a black Virgin Madonna framed by a collage of pornographic images of female genitalia, and elephant dung. Following the Brooklyn Museum incident, the painting sold for a record $150.3 million dollars at Christie’s in 2015.
In 2003, Ofili was chosen to represent the UK in the prestigious Venice Biennale. The work he did in the British Pavilion that year was done as part of collaboration with architect David Adjaye. Prior to his inclusion in the Biennale, Ofili began working on a series of paintings from 1995-2005. These paintings were typically done in one sitting using watercolours. While the subject matter surrounding the paintings often depicted men or women, sometimes groups they referenced hip-hop and blaxploitation films and larger racial and sexual stereotypes. In 2010, the Tate Modern featured an extensive exhibition of the artist’s work.
In 2015, Ofili had the first major solo exhibit of his work at the New Museum which explored the last three decades of his art. In 2017, he was named the Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2017 New Year’s Honours for arts services. He currently lives and works in Trinidad and Tobago as well as London and New York.
Following a similar trajectory, British artist Claudette Johnson has come to be known in the art world for her larger scale drawings of Black women. Johnson who was active within the BLK Art Group, came to first make a name for herself in the 1980s. The BLK Art Group which was founded in 1982, was comprised of a group of Afro-Caribbean artists in London. The founding members included: Keith Piper, Marlene Smith, Eddie Chambers and Donald Rodney. The group exhibited widely together in small and larger gallery settings and became known for their political stances and conceptual works which sought to further interrogate larger systems of class, race and gender within the UK. The group’s larger critique of racism within the British Art world gave way to various shows across a wider spectrum. In many ways, the BLK Art Group would go on to influence the Black British artists who would come to be associated with the YBAs.
Johnson was born in 1959 in Manchester. She would go on to study art at Wolverhampton Polytechnic where she would eventually become active within the BLK Art Group. In 1982, Johnson gave a seminar and lecture at the first National Black Arts Conference that would come to be a seminal moment in the development of Black feminism in the UK. In 1983, Johnson would also be part of an influential show Five Black Women, which was exhibited at the Africa Centre Gallery in London.
In 1986, Johnson’s work was exhibited at the ICA in London. She had a number of group and solo exhibitions throughout the 1990s and beyond including shows at Black Art Gallery, Royal Festival Hall, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and at the Tate Modern among others.
Over the course of Johnson’s career which spans over three decades, her work always sought to combat stereotypes of Black women. Johnson depicted a wide array of women over the years in her drawings. Johnson’s drawings have been known for their large size and use of oil pastel. While Johnson’s work would sometimes include a decorative background to frame her subjects, some of her most striking pieces have been of people drawn with little or no background. These works tend to command attention and draw the viewer in. Johnson’s work has continued to be highly influential.
Like Johnson, Sonia Boyce is Black British artist who strived to create political art. Unlike Johnson and Ofili, Boyce has been teaching contemporary art at various colleges and universities in the UK for over thirty years. In addition to her teaching practice, she has continued to create thought provoking and important pieces of art.
Born in 1969 in London, Boyce would become well known within British art circles in the 1980s. Boyce began to engage both conceptual art and larger academic underpinnings to explore issues of gender and race within her work. She studied at the Stourbridge College and was heavily influenced by the Black Cultural Renaissance movement. In 1983, Boyce would take part in the now famous group show, Five Black Women. Her early work was composed of chalk and pastel drawings that were based on her childhood and life experiences.
As she evolved as an artist, Boyce began to engage a more multifaceted approach engaging performance, video, drawing, sound, photography and print. Boyce’s later works continued utilize various mediums while exploring contemporary representations of Black life. Since 1990, she has also been heavily influenced by collaborative art projects between herself and other artists. Boyce’s more recent art has centred around the experiences of being a woman of colour living in a white society, and the larger effects that sexual politics, religion, and politics have had on this. Larger themes in her art explore issues of the black body, otherness, as well as larger issues surrounding black representation.
Boyce has exhibited widely in both group and solo exhibitions. Her work is in permanent collections at Tate Modern, the Government Art Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum as well as the British Council among other places. In 2007, Boyce was awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for her services to the arts. And in 2016, she was elected as a member to the Royal Academy. She currently teaches at Middlesex University and the University of the Arts London.
Through the work of Ofili, Boyce and Johnson there have been great strides made within the fine art world for Black British artists. While these artists broke down many barriers for the generation of artists that came after them, it is still vital to recognize the work they have done. By actively engaging larger issues of gender, race, and class within their art, Ofili, Boyce and Johnson have helped to create vital discourse around these topics while also changing the way the art world works.