Stick to the Skin: African American and Black British Art, 1965-2015, by Celeste-Marie Bernier

Kalwant Bhopal is enthusiastic about a political analysis of half a century of black art

May 23, 2019
Source: Roshini Kempadoo, Ghosting (2004)

In her introduction to this beautiful book, Celeste-Marie Bernier describes how she was “inspired by [artist and curator] Labaina Humid’s conviction that the centuries-long histories of African diasporic artists and art-making live and die ‘inside the invisible’”. She provides us with a visual history through 150 artworks by 50 artists spanning five decades. She examines how Black artists have been – and remain – invisible in the world of art; to sponsors, curators and patrons of art galleries. But what she emphasises is how black artists endeavour to create their own spaces of visibility by recognising and acknowledging each other’s work and engaging in collaborative projects. In this way, they create and foster their own sense of visibility in a world dominated by art which continues to be valued through a lens of white privilege.

Bernier uses African American and Black British artists to make a comparison between different social, economic, political and historical contexts so as to analyse how art history is clouded by thematic, ideological and political conflicts. The uniqueness of her collection lies in its attention to artists “working across varying aesthetic, political, ideological, cultural, social and historical contexts and against competing national backdrops, racial categorizations, class structures, belief systems, and familial origins”. The author herself admits that for every artist she has included, there are thousands who remain excluded. She also shows us the importance of centring issues of inequality and injustice that continue to haunt people of colour not only in the UK and US but worldwide. Themes of discrimination, exclusion, persecution and racism are all key features of the book. Central to its arguments are questions of how art can be used to confront white imperialist Eurocentric traditions and aesthetic conventions which continue to perpetuate white dominant ideologies.

Stick to the Skin reminds us that “the history of African American art has its origins in US slavery and the enforced dispossession of millions of Black women, men and children that resulted from the transatlantic slave trade”. While full of exquisite art, it also provides the reader with a sophisticated analysis of how art has come to be defined, who defines it and the power that lies behind this. I was particularly struck by the artwork of Faith Ringgod. In one piece, black female resistance is portrayed in the figure of a confident black pregnant woman protectively holding her stomach while “wielding a ceremonial hatchet in defense of herself”. In another stunning painting, she depicts the Statue of Liberty in “blackface” carrying a child – an image of black female liberation set against a backdrop of a burning slave ship. Similarly, Larry Achiampong’s images focus on the persecution of black people through slavery and colonialism. His blurred portrait of a black male subject is empowering as well as disturbing. His art acknowledges the struggles for black equality but also gives a sense of hope for the future.

Throughout, Bernier examines how art can dismantle, disrupt and challenge the status quo. It can be a form of radical protest, used to confront racism and white privilege in a world that continues to be threatened by outsiders and “others”. This remarkable book makes very clear how and why this is important, more so today than ever.

Kalwant Bhopal is professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham. Her latest book, White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-racial Society, was published last year.


Stick to the Skin: African American and British Art, 1965-2015
By Celeste-Marie Bernier
University of California Press, 344pp, £66.00
ISBN 9780520286535
Published 12 February 2019

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Becoming visible

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