African-British Visual Arts Pioneers

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Nowadays, it’s not unusual to think of visual artists of African heritage based in the UK as highly successful. Indeed, some of Britain’s most celebrated artists of recent years are frequently exhibited around the world in major galleries. They have supporters amongst the most powerful patrons and art dealers. This wasn’t the case a few decades ago, so many of us might not know of the work of the painter Uzo Egonu (1931 -1996), for example.

There was an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery of the Southbank Centre called The Other Story, which I remember seeing in 1989. I was immediately attracted to Egonu’s work which was presented therein, even though I hadn’t heard much about him before that time. In more recent times, I also saw the No Colour Bar exhibition at the Guildhall Gallery (2015 -2016), which featured works by some artists who might be considered to Egonu’s contemporaries, mainly of Caribbean background.

Perhaps there is much to celebrate regarding the impact made by the internationally renowned British artists of African heritage. Some of these artists have made efforts to encourage cross art form collaborations amongst Black British creative practitioners. But there was a time when quite a few of the older Black artists I knew as an emerging musician were frustrated by the dearth of opportunities to let the public know of their creative output.

Is there a need for art historians, curators and other scholars to set the record straight about the work that was created in those wilderness years? In my opinion, there is a lot of work to be done in this regard.

These artists created work in times that must have been highly restrictive for people of African descent in the UK. There are bound to be valuable ideas in their output that should be brought to the attention of art lovers and the wider community, to give a sense of how far we have travelled as part of the British story.