MA History of Art

No Black in the Union Jack? Postwar Black British Art, 1945 to now

Indie A. Choudhury

Ajamu, from the series Circus Master. (1997) Black and white photograph, 23 x 23 cm. i Ajamu, from the series Circus Master. (1997) Black and white photograph, 23 x 23 cm.

This MA special option considers the formation of Black British art and its changing iterations from the postwar period to the present day.

Embedded in a need for representation and often evolving through cultural and political resistance, postwar Black British art has a pivotal yet complex role within British history and the larger context of a global Black diaspora and its art histories, including Black Modernism. The study of Black British art is multifaceted and transdisciplinary encompassing art, photography, film, literature, fashion, performance, sound, and oral cultures. This special option asks: how have conceptions of Blackness and Britishness been reconstituted by each other in this period? In what ways does “the Other story” of Black British art and culture chart a British history as well as Black Modernism? How does postwar Black British art negate otherness yet represent cultural difference? What is the impact of its changing status within British art as well as a larger global art history of the Black diaspora?

While the history of artists from the Black diaspora in the UK predates 1945, Black British art as a field developed perceptibly in the aftermath of the second world war amidst global decolonisation and mass migration. With the growing resurgence of interest as demonstrated by John Akomfrah representing Great Britain at the forthcoming 60th Venice Biennale in 2024 following Sonia Boyce’s Golden Lion Award for her preceding biennale presentation in 2022, Veronica Ryan’s Turner Prize award in 2023 as well as recent major solo exhibitions of artists such as Isaac Julien, Ingrid Pollard, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, this option affords a timely reassessment of Black British diaspora aesthetics, history and politics. As a burgeoning field, the option offers rich opportunities for in-depth exploration towards further study, professional work, and curation. Complemented by museum, gallery, archival, and studio visits, the course includes guest lectures by artists and is anticipated to include a study trip to the Venice Biennale in 2024.

Moving through the first wave of post-1945 Black British artists, we explore the distinct constellations of African, Caribbean, and South Asian artists aligned by a perceived communal Blackness under the rubric of a Commonwealth. In the 1980s, the Black Art Movement became the central marker of Black British Art through which artists began to deconstruct ideas of race and nation alongside constructions of a new Black British identity that were emblematized in their art and practice. Complicating these ideas and the apparent inclusivity of the movement were the contributions of women artists of African, Afro-Caribbean, and South Asian origin. We consider the changing designations of Black Britishness against the alliances and divergences in cultural, political, and aesthetic solidarity. Sexual identities and the AIDS crisis further entwined issues of Black homogeneity and sexual otherness within the wider framework of race and its representation. While choice of medium was often at the behest of economic and material access, it also lent itself to formal experimentation through film, sound, installation, and mixed media.

We will investigate how questions of media specificity, innovation, and Blackness became linked in this period and continues to permeate for contemporary Black British artists including queer, trans, gender non-conforming and non-binary artists and their practices signifying a new politics and ecology of identities. As well as those mentioned above, artists we may consider include Aubrey Williams, Sir Frank Bowling, Donald Locke, F.N. Souza, Steve McQueen, Hew Locke, Alberta Whittle, Black Audio Film Collective, Keith Piper, Claudette Johnson, Thomas J. Price, Horace Ové, Lubaina Himid, Barbara Walker, Larry Achiampong, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Chila Kumari Burman, Harold Offeh, Hamad Butt, Vanley Burke, Donald Rodney, Leah Kirby (CYRO), Lakwena Maciver, Chris Ofili, and others.

Foregrounding the field as social, political, and cultural practice, the course is structured both chronologically and thematically to examine historical and critical developments. In addition to foundational texts by Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Kobena Mercer plus artist-scholars such as Eddie Chambers and Rasheed Araeen, we critically assess narratives of race, empire, migration, postcolonial, and decolonial methodologies. In tandem, we evaluate the influence of significant Black art exhibitions, designated Black art spaces, and more recently, mainstreaming, integration and its critique. Reading with and through an interdisciplinary lens, we draw upon literature ranging from authors such as George Lamming, Jean Rhys, Édouard Glissant, and Edward Kamau Brathwaite and where possible, connecting to wider fields of Black diasporic cultural forms, histories and theories is encouraged. As issues of immigration, nationalism, and decolonization remerge as critical questions, this special option situates Black British art as a significant field for our contemporary present.

Course Leader: Indie A. Choudhury

In the event that a course leader is on sabbatical, takes up a fellowship, or otherwise is not able to teach the course, they will be replaced by another experienced course leader either for a semester or, in some cases, the academic year.

Please note: whilst many Special Options will include site visits within the UK and further afield, these are subject to confirmation.


Special Options 2024/25

You can choose up to three Special Options, tailoring personal statements in relation to each Special Option.

Our Special Options change from year to year as we seek to refresh and expand our offer.

We aim to confirm these at least twelve months in advance, and will always contact applicants immediately in rare instances where changes have to be made. In 2024/5 we are especially pleased to include new or returning Special Options, including Art and Empire in the Indian Ocean World, c.1800–1900, Architectural Legacies of Empire at Home and Abroad, c.1620- c.1920, Violent Materials: Art and War in the Early Modern World, ca. 1500–1800, Court and Commerce: Arts of Islam and the Great Mongol State, 1206-1368 and The Surrealist Century: Mediums, Madness, Magic and the Manifesto of Surrealism (1924).