20 Dec

Black British Artists to Be Written Into Art History

Sonia Boyce to create database of works by artists of African and Asian descent held in UK public collections

by Anny Shaw The Art Newspaper

The British artist Sonia Boyce aims to rewrite the history of art by creating the first database of works by black artists held in UK public collections. Over the next three years a team of artists and researchers at the University of the Arts London will trawl museums and galleries across the country hunting for works by artists of African and Asian descent. Many have been overlooked, particularly in their role in the creation and development of Modernism.

The findings will be used to compile the first database of works by black artists, which will link to the BBC’s Your Paintings website. Boyce conservatively estimates there are around 300 works in museums, but that figure doesn’t include the art held in university, hospital and other public collections, which her team will also search.

“It’s a big job; no one has done this before,” Boyce says. “One of the problems for anyone trying to do research in this area is that the information is there, but it’s hidden. This project will leave a trail for future scholars.”

Titled Black Artists and Modernism, the project will also include exhibitions, symposia and possibly a television documentary. The Tate in London, the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry and the Bluecoat in Liverpool are among the institutions collaborating on the initiative.

Boyce says they are already in talks with the Herbert about a show of works by Gavin Jantjes, a South African artist who studied in Germany under Joseph Beuys in the 1970s before moving to Britain. He has since returned to live in South Africa.

“Discussions about Gavin’s work are often eclipsed by his biography,” Boyce says. “One key objective of the project is to focus on the relationships between practices and forms.”

Another artist often overlooked in the Western canon of art history is David Medalla, a pioneer of kinetic and participatory art whose signature bubble machines inspired Marcel Duchamp to create his Medallic Sculpture in 1968 in tribute. Born in the Philippines but based in Britain since the 1960s, Medalla describes himself as a citizen of the world. “[The project] aims to make sense of the global nature of art practice,” Boyce says.

The project, which has been awarded £722,000 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is being conducted in partnership with Middlesex University, has garnered praise from leading artists and academics around the world. Kenneth Montague, the director of Wedge Curatorial Projects in Toronto and a trustee of the Tate says: “For too long, the importance of this work to the British arts scene has been overlooked. This initiative is about legacy—setting the record straight.”

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