Harrison says that the movement migrated to the UK in the 80s, making Wolverhampton its home and was re-cast as the British Black Arts Movement. COURTESY
Actor Chester Gregory’s jacket was a stand-out look at the Tony awards, but what did it mean? A few weeks ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Brother Vellies dress spearheaded the return of political slogans on the red carpet. The inherent contradiction of wearing a Tax the Rich ballgown at the Met Gala – one of the most opulent events in the world – made the garment divisive, but also spoke to its power as an incredibly potent piece of political dressing.
Last night, the Broadway actor Chester Gregory wore a jacket from the Los Angeles-based label Rare Loyalty & Trust, with the words “Black Art Matters” on the back. Topped with a Basquiat-like crown, the pithy slogan worked in a similar way to Ocasio-Cortez’s dress. In the context of the Tony awards ceremony, which celebrates Broadway, it cut to the heart of the issue of representation (a survey from 2020 found that just 20% of theatre in New York was created by people of colour). “We wanted to make a bold, elegant, timeless statement,” says Rare Loyalty & Trust’s Tony Jones. “There are traces of black innovators in most art you see in any industry nowadays.” The jacket also referenced a specific movement that fought against under-representation of black people and people of colour in cultural spaces. “The Black Art Matters movement is really a continuation of the Black Arts Movement that was started in the US by a group of politically motivated black writers, artists and musicians,” explains the artist and activist Annis Harrison. “It has its roots in New York, but also involved other cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Michigan and many more.”
Harrison says that the movement migrated to the UK in the 80s, making Wolverhampton its home and was re-cast as the British Black Arts Movement. “The most important exhibition that came out of this movement was The Other Story, which was shown at the Hayward Gallery in 1989,” she says. “The show was curated by Rasheed Araeen and brought together artists of black African, Caribbean and Asian heritage.” Artists who took part included Lubaina Himid, Hassan Sharif and Sonia Boyce. Despite the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic giving people pause to think about race, Harrison says that the Black Art Matters movement is as important as ever. “We need to make sure that the historical artwork [by black artists and people of colour] are out on display,” she says. This is so that “the next generation of inspirational young black and artists of colour and the general public can see the true history of the contributions of black and artists of colour to the UK’s art canon”. Representation extends to black artists on curriculums and more black faces lecturing in universities and curating galleries, she says. Harrison says the visibility of Gregory’s red carpet suit is important. “I feel that it’s a good thing to place the statement Black Art Matters on a suit at this very public event,” she says, because “black art is in danger of being forgotten once again”. As Gregory wrote on Instagram: “Now that the world is slowly opening back up, we can’t ever forget the work that needs to be done to ‘redesign the room’.”
How activism and black art have influenced history
Art is an expression that transcends barriers. Used in a way that penetrates race, gender, sex or nationality, art can relay unspoken messages to the masses. The intersection of Black expressions of art and activism have long since been a mirror society used to reflect issues of that time. Dating back to the Harlem Renaissance African Americans have used art to penetrate the soul while telling a story of Black experience. Today, there is a resurgence of Black creatives through literature, music and artwork who shine a light on social injustice of today.
Acting as gatekeepers of history, artists use their media to keep an accurate account of modern-day struggles. For one artist, the enjoyment of the talent sometimes cannot compare to the responsibility it carries.
“We are the tellers of the time, whether you’re a visual artist, or a writer, or a musician, especially if you’re Black or of color, period. I feel like we don’t have the luxury of doing things just because we enjoy doing them,” Sydney James, a local Detroit muralist says. “I have the burden, or the duty, to really tell these stories. If we don’t tell our own stories, they’re going to tell them for us and we already know how that’s going to go.”
With activism in his blood, Detroit artist Mario Moore began exploring political art in college. A graduate of the College of Creative Studies and Yale University, and grandson of Detroit activist Helen Moore, the visual artist believes art is the catalyst that may spark change.
“What’s more effective for me is to make artwork that talks about the Black human experience, and within that I’m dealing with certain issues that only we face, repetitively. I’m giving voice for people who can take action. I don’t think my artwork can be sponsored as activism, but it might get people to think about things and make those people go out and take that action,” Moore says.
Emerging to take action, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) of the 1960s and 1970s helped to promote Black pride and activism. Giving a voice to Black artists and inspiring generations to come, BAM helped to lay a concrete foundation for the movement and what activism looks like.
“I think me just showing up to a space is activism,” Sydney James says. “As a Black woman, doing what I do, I think just my existence is activism.”
Still relevant in their works, artists in the BAM movement used various artistic media to beautifully magnify Black pride. Through its artistry, the organization provided a space Blacks could represent their shared experiences unapologetically.
“We live in a constant state of having to make other people comfortable with our presence, which is ridiculous because we’re here,” James says.
For other artists, displays of activism in art manifest in a more subtle manner. Attacking the problem from multiple angles, Black creatives are not only using their works to invoke change or consciousness but taking to the community and providing spaces to learn and grow.
“I think it looks different depending on what you do. I know for myself, I’m an educator, so in terms of activism, it’s important to me to equip the younger generation with intellectual weapons they can use in the world to come,” Tylonn Sawyer, artist and educator, says.
In urbanized gentrified communities like Detroit, large investors and stakeholders continue to purchase land from the hands of those who inhabit it. To take a stand and guarantee Black art would have a permanent space, a local Detroit artist uses the profits from her art to acquire land in the city.
“I took it a step further and once I saw all the new Detroiters coming in to acquire all this land, I was like I need some land because what is the future of art in Detroit? Whose face is it going to be?” Tiff Massey asks. “I was really worried about having a permanent placement in the city. Now that I have a permanent placement, I’m trying to make sure other artists have a permanent placement. That’s activism.”
On the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement, political art has become increasingly prevalent. For Massey, eliminating the need for protest art and deadly procedures for Black communities is what should be done.
“Who cares about political art? Black people just don’t want to die for no reason,” Massey says. “If we actually had systems in place that were actually set up for everyone, there would be no activism. There would be no protest art.”
Stemming from and sparking marches across the nation, the continual murders of several young Black men and women kicked activism into high gear and opened the door for a new wave of expressionism art.