"Over the past few months, I’ve been immersing myself in political upheavals of the early 1980s, so it was a slightly bizarre week last week as the riots again raged across Britain.
I’ve been working on an exhibition about the Blk Art Group who came together during the widespread racial tension in Britain during the early 80s. This period saw the coming of age of a group of young black people whose parents had migrated to Britain during the 1950s and 1960s, and had faced racial prejudice their entire lives. It was at a time when Thatcher’s Tory government was outspokenly anti-immigration, the National Front party was at the height of its popularity and police discrimination against black people was rife. These tensions reached a climax during the early 80s as race riots occurred across the country.
Against this backdrop a group of radical young black artists and art students got together. This fluid line up of artists organised a series of exhibitions and events across London and the Midlands which promoted contemporary black art practice and created a forum for discussion. At this time work from black artists was fairly invisible in Britain; it wasn’t taught on art courses and was rarely shown in galleries. Although the group altered over time, several artists remained at the core: Eddie Chambers, Claudette Johnson, Keith Piper, Donald Rodney and Marlene Smith.
I’ve been wanting to curate this show since I started here about four years ago. Sheffield held several important exhibitions of black artists’ work during the 1980s and we’re lucky enough to have some very significant works in the collection here. The artists often used everyday materials to make their work, such as x-rays, straw and newspaper. As this is the case, many of the works were in very bad condition and so we’ve not been able to display them for a long time. This exhibition was the opportunity to do some much needed conservation and get the works back into a displayable condition.
I think these are some of the most powerful and political works we have in Sheffield’s collection. I find it hard to imagine now just what an impact these would have made as you wandered into a traditional gallery space which may never have shown work by black artists before. Reading some of the visitor comments from the time has been both revealing and shocking. These works are borne out of a particular historical moment. 30 years later and they have lost none of their power."
Aug 18 2011