British Contexts: The Black Arts Movement & Beyond

Black Art, Black Power: Responses to Soul of a Nation – Tate Modern

British Contexts: The Black Arts Movement & Beyond

‘When artists aren’t making art, they become a danger to themselves (and to others)’ – Lubaina Himid

A panel discussion with Lubaina Himid (artist)  and Marlene Smith (artist & curator) chaired by Melanie Keen (Director of Iniva).


On Friday 15th of October a panel conversation between Lubaina Himid, Marlene Smith and chair Melanie Keen took place at the TATE during the ‘Black Art, Black Power: Responses to Soul of a Nation Conference’.

Titled: ‘British Contexts: The Black Arts Movement & Beyond’ a conversation that I had personally been waiting to hear and had seemingly come just at the right time.

The conversation mainly focused on the two artist’s experiences navigating art school in the 80’s. Oddly enough, their experiences reflected many of the narratives that I know too well. The narratives of loneliness, isolation, confusion and unwelcome. In Marlene’s particular experience, the BLK Arts Group that she formed part of with members such as Keith Piper, Donald Glover, etc were what helped her through arts school, being part of the group was what kept her from leaving altogether; this made me think of my own experience and how in my own case that group was Shades of Noir alongside the group of black students that would come together to just discuss work, navigating Camberwell or general conversation. That is what got me through art school; I couldn’t help but think that over 20 years or more and the exact same narratives are perpetuated and told. Reminding me of a quote from Melanie Keen:

‘Intergenerational conversations also serve as means to break cycles’ – Melanie Keen.

Perhaps here, in this conversation where we hear the narratives of the generations before us retell theirs, perhaps here, in this instance their telling will serve as a means of breaking the cycle; so by the time we tell ours, the narratives will have changed?

As for Himid, her narratives and experiences were slightly different to Smith’s, she mentions loathing theatre design and the arts; after completing her degree in theatre design and her masters at the Royal College of Arts. She later decided to then go into teaching within the same institutions, to be able to make a change, moving on to say how she thought that perhaps she hadn’t succeeded as much as she hoped to.

There was something different about the conversation, the rawness, the honesty and the humour that emanated from these women. As they spoke of their experiences navigating art schools, not only did it feel like I wasn’t alone, but it made me feel like what I had been through wasn’t an individual isolated experience. It seemed as though it was a collective diasporic experience. A shared narrative.

Himid and Smith spoke of the first time they met each other, or had heard about one another, sharing endearing stories about their pasts and experiences together; whilst also sharing the books that got them through.

 ‘Before ‘Google’ we only had the books and each other’ – Marlene Smith

As the conversation drew to a close, I felt a restored sense of hope and affirmation, to keep on pushing and striving, reigniting the need and the urgency to create work. Finally understanding how self-destructive and damaging I had become to myself because I hadn’t been engaging in my own practice since my Final Degree Show piece. Survival is essential, but my practice is also a form of survival, one of my tools of resistance, my strongest tool at that. It’s how I make sense of the world that surrounds me, a way of escaping, of critiquing, of navigating and of growth. Since, I’ve been able to begin again with a new sketchbook, releasing all that flowed and that was dwelling within me, out onto the pages..