MA History of Art

“There ain’t no black in the union jack”: Race and Nation in Postwar Black British Art

Indie A. Choudhury

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

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. As much as Black British art reformulated definitions of blackness and Britishness, it also demarcated the often-contested territory between racial identity and national belonging throughout postwar British history. Black British art signalled the claim to be both black and British and crucially, the right to its representation through new artistic practices and cultural expression. The study of Black British art is multifaceted and transdisciplinary encompassing art, film, literature, sound, and oral cultures. 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? 

Moving through the first wave of postwar 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 80s, 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.

Foregrounding the field as social, political, and cultural practice, the course is structured both chronologically and thematically to examine historical and critical developments. Alongside theoretical underpinnings, we will evaluate the influence of black art exhibitions, designated black art spaces, and more recently, mainstreaming and integration and its critique. As the YBA (Young British Artist) generation and the cultural resonances of “Brit Art” began to cultivate a seemingly more expansive notion of Britishness, we conclude by assessing the legacies of postwar Black British Art and its contemporary developments within national and transnational contexts of Afro-Britishness and the new politics of identity. The resurgence of questions of nationalism, immigration, and decolonisaton affords a timely reassessment for the study of Black British diaspora aesthetics. Complemented by museum/ gallery and studio visits, this option includes guest lectures by artists. 

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 2023/24

Please note: Special Options vary from year to year and are subject to demand. The Courtauld reserves the right to amend or withdraw the options if necessary, and will always directly inform applicants of any changes.

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