Thursday, 11 February 2016

No MORE Colour Bar: is it really over?

The photos in this post are credited to Eddie Osei. They beautifully capture the energy at the last major event of the No Colour Bar Exhibition, the RAP Party and Late View - Friday 22nd January.

It begins with a seedling that takes root then spreads. Spreads, not like a marauding vine but the spark that inspires. Creativity cannot be contained. It thrives and seeks to reproduce. Its aim is expansion and transformation.

The seedling is formed in a sub region – if it was literal that would be deep in the earth. But the sub-region I speak of here is imagination. Someone birthed the idea, shared it and so it became uncontainable. Humility or maybe the secret making of things – the way magic occurs, means we might never know where the genius of the idea first took root. It doesn’t matter. The nod is to acknowledge the power of a single idea that knows it must spread for its magic to manifest.

The No Colour Bar Exhibition has come and apparently gone. It doesn’t seem fair, if real, that it is over. If you didn’t get to see the exhibition you missed something special. Reason enough to find some way to insist on another chance. Yet, a repetition won’t do. If what you missed was special and possible, then why not demand more. This more would be no mere encore, but expansive, transcending the limitations of the bar that kept the ‘secret’ hidden. Margaret Andrews’ parting dedication at the RAP party on Friday 22nd January reminded us that representation and showcasing of Black British Art has been just that – a secret. If one doesn’t know this secret, one assumes there’s nothing to know, let alone show.

Dr Andrews, Chair of Friends of the Huntley at London Metropolitan Archives (FHALMA) was serious when she admonished white establishment for failing to be more inclusive when it comes to cultural representation that reflect diversity in the UK. In other words, the ‘secret’ is deliberate. Many of the brilliant artists appear obscure, as though they’re new discoveries. The truth is that they have lacked exposure. ‘Shame on you,’ she told those in the industry who have the means to direct the way our society is reflected, but who make of art a privilege enjoyed by the few.

We know that what we saw during the six month Exhibition was a moderation of the immense works of art being produced by Black Artists in the UK.
From the seedling, one can tell much went into organising the exhibition, bringing about the fruit of success. Pride and tears combined at the RAP party, when the organisers praised one another’s hard work: the artists, volunteers, the collaborative efforts of FHALMA, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), The Guildhall Art Gallery (GAG) and associates of each organisation. The exhibition benefitted from funds from the Lottery Heritage, but it was really the collective effort of all involved that created the magic.

Michael McMillan, one of the Curators, who designed the installed book shop, expressed that he was tired, and it was no gesture. Like others, the work was hard, even those who were paid for ‘working’ on the exhibition did much more than that – so that all were in fact volunteers. It would not have worked otherwise. Yet it could have. For unlike mainstream exhibitions, the artists loaned their work to the No Colour Bar for free. If we insist on their being more, for the bar to be removed then this draining of resources, this liberty which we know is often taken of artists, particularly of black artists has to stop. The organisers were grateful for the artists’ generosity, that was clear. But they knew it wasn’t fair, nor was it the general order of things. For the sake of unveiling the secret, so that we could embrace the magic, for now this had to be the way it was done. In the spirit of the activism that inspired the works in this exhibition we must collectively demand the change.

The seedling had its own seedling. Eric and Jessica Huntley were dedicated to social justice and recognised in this the value and significance of culture. Their activism was all inclusive – political struggle could not be separate from cultural development. The bronze bust of Jessica Huntley at the entrance to the exhibition looked on with pride at what their activism, spanning over 50 years, have led to. Of course, they were not alone. Bogle L’Ouverture publishers was co-founded by them and others in 1968. McMillan’s installation of the book shop charmingly conveyed the spirit of those times when undiscovered writers, young African/black people seeking knowledge about themselves and wanting education without discrimination gathered there to express themselves and learn. Thanks to the Huntley’s archiving, knowing that those details some of us might otherwise take for granted would one day really matter, we could experience a little of their world and times. The large map of London area spread across the centre table in the book shop spoke of a forgotten, even lost era, when one could find other book shops and cultural hubs that met the needs of Black people in London. Few remain.

Eric Huntley expressed joy at the numbers who turned out to the party. Tiredness coupled with humility showed on his face. He seemed enchanted by the portrait of him by Ebun Culwin, unveiled at event. The artist said it was not possible to portray him without his wife Jessica somewhere in the frame. It showed a man, quiet with wisdom and poised for more, if lighter work. He was humbled, as he knew Jessica would be too, and overwhelmed.

He had invited tributes from artists – poets like John Agard, storytellers, Like Mark Mathews – with warming tales beautifully expressed in his Guyanese accent; grandson Asante who did a rap piece seemed nervous, maybe not from having to perform in front of the crowd, but (subconsciously) knowing that his grandparents made the gathering possible. I enjoyed Alan Cooper’s, ‘to dream the impossible dream’ which captured the spirit of the exhibition beautifully.

There will be a digital tour of the exhibition across the UK and beyond. It won’t be quite the same but will still need our support. I came away thinking how marvellous it would be as, Margaret Andrews urged, to invest in a work of art by Black artists. This she directed at those who might have the means to do so instead of investing in the latest model of car! I have the feeling that Jessica Huntley will not be resting in ‘mourning silence’ but is right now, somewhere in the midst working her magic, such wonders we’ve yet to see.

Above photos Eddie Osei