Sonia Boyce photo Paul Cochrane
Acclaimed artist and UAL joint Chair of Black Art and Design, Professor Sonia Boyce MBE, today launches a major national art research project which is set to rewrite modern art history and show Britain’s national art collections in a new light. Titled Black Artists and Modernism, the research project will be led by UAL in collaboration with Middlesex University, funded by a £722,000 award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The research has been profiled in The Art Newspaper, The Independent, Times Higher Education, and The I newspaper.

The Black Artists and Modernism research team will begin a three year art hunt that will take them the length and breadth of the country, investigating the hidden story of black British artists in modern art history. Partnering with cultural institutions across Britain, including Tate in London, the Herbert in Coventry and the Bluecoat in Liverpool, the Black Artists and Modernism research will bring new light to the UK’s national art collections.

“Without black artists there would be no modernism”
With this powerful statement, Sonia Boyce distills the fundamental importance of the project. Artists of African and Asian descent have been making art in the UK at least since the early twentieth century, however, a problem exists where art criticism continues to serve the artworks of these artists inadequately. The research team state: “a peculiar kind of eclipsing has taken place where instead of considering and talking directly about the work, the discussions have emphasized the ethnicity of the artist, and the general problematics of race and identity politics within the art establishment, deflecting attention away from how these art-works relate to or have influenced the story of twentieth century art”.

Illustrating the little known history of black artists’ fundamental role in the conception and development of modernism, the research project will use exhibitions, a dedicated website, symposia, a monograph, and potentially a television documentary, to share the story of modern art in a new light. The project’s findings will also be used to create the first database to reveal where works by black artists can be found in the nation’s public art collections, and will link to the BBC’s Your Paintings website.

Support for the project has come from high profile artists and academics around the world:

Kellie Jones, Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Colombia University
“Black Artists and Modernism is a magnificent project. It presents a timely exploration of amazing early work that was the base of explorations for so much that has come later and changed the face of how we view art in the world.”

Courtney J Martin, Assistant Professor, History of Art and Architecture, Brown University
“For several centuries Britain has introduced some of the most important art and artists to the world. Despite this rich history, the art history of the nation’s own black artists (a term that exceeds the limitations of race to encompass political and cultural solidarity) remains under-recognised nationally and internationally. … Black Artists and Modernism will re-write British art history and set the contemporary record straight for a generation to come.”

Kobena Mercer, Professor, African American Studies and History of Art, Yale University
“This far-reaching initiative promises to give us a deeper and richer understanding of Britain’s place in the global and local networks that made 20th century modernism a dynamically cross-cultural phenomenon.”

Kenneth Montague, Director, Wedge Curatorial Projects (Toronto) / Tate Trustee
“The Black Artists and Modernism project is a long-overdue, absolutely essential resource – 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. As a collector of contemporary art that explores black culture, I fully support this urgent and essential addition to the scholarship around identity and representation.”

Melanie Keen, Director, Iniva: The Institute of International Visual Arts, London
“Reconsideration of artistic practice, artworks and exhibitions are as central to the BAM project as they have been to Iniva for the past 20 years. Debates around margin and centre or the insistence of the western canon are about to be thoroughly unpacked so that any lingering questions around the legitimacy of art made by Black British artists will have to be grappled with head on, no dismissing, no diminishing.”

Launching on 27 November at University of the Arts London, the project will conclude in May 2018.

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