The decibel visual arts platform has focused attention towards Black and Asian artists working in England today. As artist Raimi Gbadamosi explains, the platform has uncovered a minefield of issues facing practitioners in their efforts to have their work seen, recognised and respected.
Racial prejudice is a difficult problem to declare in the arts ? a sector that proclaims liberalism to the point of colour blindness and prides itself in its openness to all ?difference?. To call the contemporary art scene conservative and racist would be received as a misplaced slur. However, when one digs deeper, the uncomfortable truth lies not far below the surface.
Art world racism is woven into the fabric of the system. The British art world is, like all British business, characteristically nepotistic. It is a world of contacts, a fundamental flaw for any industry that boasts of a dispassionate reliance on creative brilliance as its arbiter. At the bottom of the hierarchy of the art world are artists that are personally known to gallery owners or to their network of curators. An artist needs to be shown at this level of the pyramid to proceed into the mainstream and stardom. The contacts forged at casual social meetings are what is required to get work shown. However, as most Black artists are not part of the white social network, their work does not make it into the white galleries. This is expressed in the reality that more Black art is seen in publicly funded art spaces than in commercial galleries.
I use Black to mean those not racially coded as white. If there is racism that deprives one group, then it benefits another (so there is not much reason for white artists to complain). Perhaps racism in the arts is a white problem? Maybe the time has come for Black people to set out on their own? This has happened but even the racially dedicated arts centres actively exclude artists they do not consider their own. Moreover, it is bothersome that there is a need for race-defined arts centres within a system that is ostensibly unencumbered by racial prejudices.
Galleries do not want to show work that will offend the sensibilities of their audiences. Shock them ? yes, but not offend. Hence, if artists point fingers at the audience, especially in areas where the owners/ audience feel they ought to be left alone, then the work will not be shown. So, while sexual politics and class imagery of all kinds are in, racial politics is out. And when the work is exhibited, it has to be elliptically coded. An exclusive critique of the white audience is not allowed, universality is demanded, and this is not seen in Black art. If the artists speak a different social language, this is a problem too, unless it is suitable for incorporation. The art world, like advertising, relies on identification with the audience. As Black people are seen as a negligible sector of the local and international art world, work is hardly ever exhibited to address them. Paradoxically, when it is, Black attendance increases dramatically.
Of course, the inevitable challenge to my position ? that there are visible Black artists ? unfortunately only serves to prove my point. They are still not seen simply as artists but are presented as the exoneration of a liberal art world. That the few Black artists receiving mainstream interest must actively plunder their otherness to receive attention is obviously fickle. Unfortunately, these artists are then recycled to exhaustion and they become the officially sanctioned voice and vision of the other.
A Black artist has an awkward maze to negotiate. Racism within the art-world is systemic. While the people involved in the dissemination of art may be committed to equal rights and justice, the system clearly does not support this. The sector, as with British society at large, is not free of bias: inherent racial affinities, loyalties and prejudices inform all the decisions of those in the arts.
Now the sword is pointing at my stomach, but the band plays on.
Edited by Colin Beesting, Communications Manager, decibel.
Raimi Gbadamosi is curating a series of shows at the Spacex Gallery, Exeter. Current projects include: The Republic; w: http://www.the-republic.net