Black Georgians at the Black Cultural Archives

The current show at the BCA is one hell of a mythbuster – an enlightening show into the history of Black Britain.

It is also a show about the value of the archive (yes, this particular one, but The Archive in general), and its importance in historical narrative. It leads by example the value of collecting privately for public use, particularly collecting to your interests and of your own voice.

 

The BCA archives don’t have the weight of other archival institutions in Britain. They do, however, have a sharp focus that gives them the capacity to ask difficult questions and challenge previously-held public opinion. And in this show, they definitely do.

Black Georgians, given away in the title, focuses on black lives during the Georgian period – a period where Britain’s cultural influence on Black lives was primarily felt in the plantations of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and in the colonisation of African nations in the ‘Scramble for Africa’.

There is a lazy British history – still generally held – that there were no Black people in Great Britain until The Windrush ship arrived in 1948, full of Caribbean ‘migrants’ here to look for work.

The show at the BCA actively disputes this history. It draws from its own archives, in conjunction with private art collectors, the National Archives and publicly accessible records, to show the story of Black British culture in Georgian times – centuries earlier.

There are some incredible stories, portraits and busts of literary and cultural heavyweights: Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cugano and Olauhda Equiano – key figures in black culture and collective change for Britain as a whole.

 

Several featured prints – those of East London life which black faces, and portraits of boxer Tom Molineaux  (like the one above, published by Tom Dighton) – were on loan from collector Leslie Braine-Ikomi, a well known collector of images of the African Diaspora from the 1700s to the mid-century.

It is obvious that, working with such a collector, the narrative and scope of exhibitions such as these become even richer – able to reach more people’s hearts and minds, prompting a new relationship with history through the contemporary art at the time.

In walking slowly through the exhibition, it is also apparent that this kind of wealth* has multiple benefits – being able to portray an accurate history (not leaving Black history up to the predominantly white male historians and collectors), being able to contribute to public collection and share the wealth, plus earn more income from those collections (via loan fees and royalties) which in turn enables the collection of more artefacts for her collection.

As well as the historical figures, challenging the tired old notions of what life in Britain is made from, Leslie Braine-Ikomi’s contemporary presence as a collector in the show is itself challenging the tired old notion that art and history belongs in the hands of the same old guard.

It was surely an inspiration to this generation, some 300 years down the line, to know history, make art and collect art in order to support the artist in speaking to history; to be a bold part of whose history is supported.

*using this term to include the owning of valuable art and artefacts, jewellery, property, etc.

1:54 and the architecture of collectible art


Online art forums like Etsy, Artsy and Artnet are showing incredible stats as the go-to place for art collection, if not for particularly imaginative site names. Yet, it is interesting to see 1:54 the Contemporary African Art Fair reclaim an even greater commitment to a ‘bricks and mortar’ experience in their events.

London’s iteration of the art fair, in a very mild October, was held at Somerset House, traversing both East and West wings of the 18th Century neoclassical building designed by William Chambers.

With the bookshop, bar and Forum taking upstairs spaces, the first thing that is apparent about this art fair is its intimacy.It looked and felt like walking around a large stately home or decent commercial premises, filled with contemporary art. Art fair imitating life.

1:54 have managed to find a great balance between the business of an art fair – keeping a range of gallerists and a balanced discussion programme, with a softer approach of viewing the works.

Whilst not all art bought is intended for domestic hanging – or even hanging at all – seeing works displayed on walls, with high ceilings, natural lighting, architectural detail, stately scale, all contributed to the works being seen in a best light.

It allowed galleries to present a combination of large and small works and to install in spaces conducive to their final resting place.

Galleries like Tiwani were able to hang a large-scale Francesco Vidal – hot on the heels of his show as part of the Venice Biennale, and his upcoming show, to get the work in full effect. And it was impressive.

And, by all accounts, it translated just as well into sales, not to mention a great opportunity for networking and discussion.
Room outside in the courtyard, or the relaxed setting of Fernandez & Wells’ cafe were all much nicer places to discuss work, catch up on connections or have a quiet minute to read emails.

Seasoned collectors and investors are accustomed to the cattle run of exhibition spaces and rarely stop for too long. Whether there is room for a coffee, or a quiet spot is likely a moot point on an in-an-out trip.

For those part of the wider art market, not to mention newer mid-range collectors, or those previously Eurocentric collectors being introduced to the richness of a fairly new African art market – the  use of relatable space and considered architecture by 1:54 is a good one.