A look back at the Blk Art Group exhibition

We’re down to the final four days of the Blk Art Group exhibition at the Graves. It’s been a busy few months - visitors have travelled from as far away as America, and we’ve had enquiries about it from across the world. The exhibition seems to have struck a nerve – ‘vital’, ‘powerful’, ‘important’ are just some of the words that have appeared repeatedly throughout the visitor comments book.  It seems the exhibition hasn’t only had an impact on visitors to theGraves. It has provided the artists from the Group with a chance to reassess their work and its continuing relevance. We’ve been in touch with the artists throughout the research period for the exhibition, initially to consult them on conservation and then later on to borrow artworks. Our questions led the artists to look back through their own archives and to make some interesting discoveries.

In our search for some work by Marlene Smith, the only artist from the group not represented in Sheffield’s collection or anyone else’s for that matter, Marlene went into her loft and unearthed recordings of the ‘First National Black Art Convention’ from 1982. This conference was organised by members of the group to debate issues around black art and it was attended by artists and arts practitioners from across the country, from both the younger and older generation of black artists. It was an important moment in their history and remarkable that they had the foresight to record the event.

At the symposium we held in February this year, the artists announced the Blk Art Group Research Project 2012. There are plans for an international conference at Wolverhampton School of Art and Design in the autumn to mark 30 years since the first convention, and plans for a touring exhibition amongst other things. So, although it will be sad to take the exhibition down, it does mark the start of a new phase of activity examining the group’s activity. Details of the project can be found on their facebook page here 
It’s pretty fantastic that what started out as modest exhibition with Sheffield’s collections at the heart, has become a bigger project with a longer legacy. That’s not to say these things wouldn’t have been rediscovered or have happened anyway, but it’s good to think that the show at the Graves helped provide a catalyst for this.

Mar 21 2012


  1. Written by em about 3 years, 3 months ago

    I have vague memories of seeing Donald Rodney's work in Sheffield when I was younger and later, when I lived in the Midlands, I became friends with people who had known him and had worked with the Blk Art Group. I also had the pleasure of meeting Marlene a few times.

    Yes, perhaps this was a relatively "modest" exhibition and yes, perhaps renewed interest in these artists' work would have sprung up elsewhere but Sheffield also has a lot to be proud of here. Firstly - historically - for having the guts and nous to acquire these works for a public collection at a time when - as the press cuttings etc. included in the exhibition clearly showed - it was highly contentious, and secondly - now - for having the foresight to redisplay them at a moment where they were able to take on a new relevance.

    It's also to your credit that in interpreting the show you didn't shy away from the parallels between now and then which make the work seem so vital. Watching the 80s archive footage I was shocked by how little rhetoric around immigration has actually changed; the images of riots and protests showed that although some things have improved, policing seems ever more hardened and distant. Economically, we've reached a point where perhaps we can say the 80s never really ended. In the context of the exhibition, all this made me see the work with new eyes.

    I know you're going though a tough time with funding at the minute but I'd like to think this exhibition points to a possible route forward: by drawing on your own resources and building on them creatively, bravely, unblinkingly, you can achieve great, important things.

  2. Written by Leela Hetherington- Treazure about 3 years, 2 months ago

    I really enjoyed this exhibition, extremely topical as it was running concurrent with the issues of the Steven Lawrence case and the McPherson report. Very inspiring moving and always relevant.

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