No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960-1990
One morning in 1977, Eric Huntley was opening the Walter Rodney Bookshop for the day, which he owned with his wife, Jessica, in Ealing. The establishment was renowned for selling works printed by their publishing house ‘Bogle –L’Ouverture Publications’, which showcased the writing and artistry of Afro-Caribbean and other writers from diverse backgrounds, such as the assassinated Dr Walter Rodney. The store was also a nexus of creative activism, committed to awakening people to homeland injustices, as well as those in South Africa and the Caribbean.
Eric found ‘Nigger Not Wanted Here’ emblazoned across his door, ‘Keep Britain White’ branding his windows. This, however, was not unusual – in the 1970s, across London, Black bookshops were being attacked, firebombed and vandalised – with calling cards left by the National Front and Ku Klux Klan. These violent attacks were representative of the contemporary social and political tension in Britain. In 1968, Conservative minister Enoch Powell spewed his viciously racist ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, condemning immigration, whilst the National Front cried ‘There ain’t no Black in the Union Jack’.
Eric and Jessica Huntley dealt with this in their own unique fashion. They formed a committee, with the aim of fighting these injustices. The police were apathetic and the Huntleys were systematically ignored - no arrests were made. It was characteristic of the couple who, when facing oppression or hardship, converted this struggle to action in order to rally against it. They fought against problems of racism, from discrimination in the trade unions to in the education system. No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990 at the Guildhall Art Gallery acknowledges this history of activism and social enterprise. It explores an amalgamation of these and of creativity through art and literature, with postcards, posters and book covers offering a visual snapshot of lesser-known artists. Michael McMillan’s interactive installation of the bookshop itself allows visitors to explore the collection and archival audio, such as ‘Stereotype’ by John Agard, which plays softly in the background, recalling the numerous poetry readings the bookshop held (‘I’m a full blooded/ West Indian stereotype/yes that’s me/dressing fancy/and chasing women/if you think I lie, bring your sister’).
This is only one element of the exhibition. No Colour Bar presents the work of Eddie Chambers, Denzil Forrester, Sonia Boyce and Aubrey Williams, to name a few. Some, like Errol Lloyd, were close friends of the Huntleys, some were working within the Caribbean Artist’s Movement or the BLK art group of the 1980s. Others shared similar concerns, exploring decolonisation, discrimination, racial identity and migration. Some struggled to share their artistry and remain distinct from their ethnicity, pigeonholed into being ‘Black’ artists and either reacting against, or championing these labels.
Despite the peaceful splendour of the Guildhall Art Gallery, tucked away (almost irretrievably) in the Guildhall Courtyard of the City of London, No Colour Bar is loud. So loud that ‘interventions’, works of art from the exhibition, like a kaleidoscopic self-portrait by Chila Kumari Burman, have found their way onto the walls of the rest of the gallery, complementing and visually sparring with the permanent collection of Victorian art. It reminds visitors not only that the exhibition is definitely here, but also of the way its content is much a part of the cultural and historical fabric of the capital as these renowned Pre-Raphelite works. The exhibition, however, doesn’t attempt to falsify a simple narrative or suggest these artists are related solely due to their race. The works are visually disparate and the relations between them subtle. What is crucial, however, is that these works are on show at all, notably at a gallery once known for its traditional collection at the heart of the governmental and financial district. No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990 brings together home-grown artists, many successful and esteemed but perhaps less-so to the general public. It presents themes of identity, race and migration that are unnervingly pertinent today as they were nearly half a century ago.
‘No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990 is on show at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 24 January 2016.