1975 was a watershed in my life. I was forty, had no job and could not earn my living from my chosen discipline, art. Suddenly, one day, I had a strong urge to write. But as an artist I believed my job was only to make art, not to write. I had not learned the discipline of writing, nor was I inclined towards it as a serious means of expression. I had occasionally jotted down my thoughts on paper, but this was something all artists occasionally did without serious concern. But now I had began to feel that there was something I could not express through the artworks I had been making – painting, sculpture, photography, etc. I had to express it in some other way. Maybe writing would help. Why not make the writing a work of art, I thought one day. So I put myself in front of a typewriter and began to strike. My intention was to make an art statement on one A4 page. But once started, I would be with my small typewriter for the next three or four months.
I went through a torturous experience during this period. Although my head was full of ideas, it was extremely difficult to put them down on paper. I had to struggle, often for a whole day, to write a single paragraph that made any sense. But I was determined to see it through, whatever the results. During those months I did nothing but sit at the typewriter from morning to evening, every day of the week. I had no choice but to deal with what was bothering me. I was full of anger and anxiety, not only as an artist but as a human being unhappy with the things happening around me. By the end of this period I had more than one hundred pages in front of me. I put them in a large envelope, and said, ‘that’s enough’.
It was the end of February 1976 and I became depressed. There wasn’t much around to do; or maybe it was the cold weather. I had not been to Pakistan for two years to see my parents. ‘Why not go to Pakistan?’, I thought. I rang a few travel agents and got a cheap return ticket.
In Karachi I met by chance Mahmood Jamal, whom I had known in London. I gave him the hundred pages that I had typed in London. I was not sure that what I had written made any sense, but Mahmood came back with great enthusiasm: ‘You must get it published. It has some grammatical and syntactical problems, but I can help you.’ We met again in London on our return, and he helped me with the corrections. I spent another two months re-writing the text. When finished I called it ‘Preliminary Notes for a Black Manifesto’ and sent it to Studio International. A month or so later, I received a telephone call from its editor, Richard Cork, who asked me to come over and see him. When I arrived at his office, Cork looked at me, puzzled: ‘I thought you were black’. ‘Yes, I am black’, I replied and Cork just laughed. The ‘Manifesto’ was published in 1978. And thus began my involvement in art writing.
The background to this shift from making art objects to writing was a crisis that began in the early 1970s with doubts about what I had been doing as an artist. It was not so much the nature of the work I did as its relationship with the world. How could I carry on making art objects that appeared to have little to do with what was happening in the world? Anyway, nobody wanted to know or understand what I had so far produced as art – even though what I had produced in the 1960s was pioneering Minimalist work in sculpture. How could I expect a system/society to pay attention to the kind of work that was not expected from those who were seen – and are still seen – as ‘people from other cultures’? I tried to find answers to these questions by engaging in political activity: first working with the Black Panthers in Brixton, and then with a collective of artists who were engaged in supporting anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles. This experience of political activity was extremely helpful to me. It clarified a lot of my ideas but did not provide a satisfactory answer to my continuing anxiety about the function of art: how could one make art function as a transformer of society? If art accepted the primacy of politi- cal power and was co-opted to the demands of the art market, could it still function as a critical discourse? I realised I could not answer these questions without first examining society and understanding its institutional art system.
It seemed to me that the institutional structures, which defined and legitimised modern avant-garde art practices, were still Eurocentrically trapped in their colonial legacies. It was therefore necessary to re-define the role of art not only to con- front these structures, but in so doing also offer a radical alternative in the context of the postcolonial reality of a postwar liberated world.
This search for a different art practice did of course emerge from my own failure and frustration with the artworld. As I was not white and was seen as belonging to a different culture, I realised that its expectations from me were specific and different from what I as a free individual wanted to do as an artist. I always saw myself as a free human subject of modern history, without necessarily connecting this history to the tradition I was seen to have come from. My interest in art history, particularly in the work of my precursors, therefore led me to probe the official history of art in postwar Britain. But when I began to look into it, I was baffled by the total absence of non-white artists. I knew that many artists of Asian, African and Caribbean origins (henceforth African/Asian or black artists) had been active participants in the postwar British art scene, and the work of some of these artists had been well received and celebrated in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But now they had completely disappeared from the art scene never to reappear either in retrospectives or historical accounts of postwar British art. I was baffled by the total absence of these artists from any debate on or discussion of what constituted the history of art in postwar Britain. I realised that it would be futile for me to carry on producing art when it could not penetrate and be mediated by the culture in which it was produced, as without this mediation it would not reach its intended audience or achieve its historical significance.
As I began to probe further into the situation and look into the past when black artists were successful, a disturbing picture began to emerge. Although some of them had been highly successful there was something wrong with the way they were received and appreciated. Despite the fact that they produced work as a re- sponse to and engagement with modernism in postwar Britain, their work was legitimised differently from that of their white contemporaries. And yet, there was no apparent difference between them: they all showed in the same galleries and were written about in the same magazines and newspapers. They moved in the same social circles and had the same supporters and clientele. But when one looked at the nature of the writing about their work, it was disturbingly different. Artists were differentiated on the basis of their racial differences and cultural backgrounds. Although these writings were often supportive, admiration or appreciation was underpinned by a gaze that turned these artists of African or Asian origins into primitive or oriental Others. This was not very different from how black people were in general being treated. Racial and cultural differences between white and black peoples were constantly invoked to determine their social status – both positive and negative – in British society.
When peoples from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent arrived in Britain in the early 1950s, they were at first welcomed. They had to be, as they were desper- ately needed workers for the postwar reconstruction of British industry and infrastructure of transport, communication and other social services. The situation for artists from Asia, the Caribbean or Africa was somewhat different. Their role was not yet defined. In the beginning, they had to struggle hard in order to find a place in British society; and, by the end of 1950s, some of them had succeeded. They were enthusiastically welcomed into the mainstream artworld and some became well established.
While the workers helped restore British economic life to normality, indeed set it on a prosperous course that led to the optimism and cultural blossoming of the 1960s, African/Asian artists turned London into a cosmopolitan multiracial art scene. But this was not to last very long. By the mid-1960s, even the successful artists began to feel that things were changing. In fact, as the fascination with the exotic Others faded, they began to be disregarded and eventually disowned. It was therefore no surprise that Francis N Souza, Iqbal Geoffrey, Avinash Chandra and Frank Bowling saw no future in Britain; they packed up and left for New York. The workers also began to realise that they were being exploited by being railroaded into menial work. Even when they were qualified to do better jobs, their wages were much lower than those of white workers doing the same job; and the accommodation available to them was only run-down houses without basic amenities. When they started protesting about these conditions, they were seen as a problem.
Years later, in 2005, I find many people in a state of multicultural euphoria. Things have indeed changed, in some respects so much that it is no longer easy to criti- cise the system. The racism of British society is now openly recognised and the government has put forward many schemes to deal with it.1 The system is spending millions of pounds in support of cultural diversity, with African/Asian of- ficers placed in local councils to look after the cultural interests of their respective so-called ‘ethnic minorities’. We now also have some representatives in Parliament as well as in the House of Lords; and those who are considered to have exceptional achievements to their credit are being rewarded with OBEs and MBEs.
With the emergence of multiculturalism in the late 1980s, the artworld also opened its doors again to black artists. Today the British art scene includes many such successful and celebrated artists. In the 1950s and 1960s the success of the earlier generation of black artists had been limited. It did not go much beyond British shores, and when some of them went to New York, following the general trend, they did not succeed there. In comparison the present generation is doing extremely well. In the past they would not have been celebrated by a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery or expected to win the Turner Prize.
However, not all artists left for New York. In fact, a period between the mid- 1960s and late 1970s was very important for those who remained in Britain and were involved in the forefront of the avant-garde – and some still are. But their presence was totally ignored by the art establishment. In the early 1980s, things began to change, not in favour of these artists – whose pioneering work is still institutionally disregarded – but for the younger generation.
The success of the younger generation of artists is, it seems, part and parcel of the emergence of multiculturalism, as what is produced by them is culturally specific. Let us be clear. This is specificity only meant for those who are considered ‘others’, and hence the colonialist separation between people based on racial or cultural differences has now been, I would argue, openly institutionalised and maintained. And this ‘cultural specificity’ has also helped the institutions to dis- place the critical and subversive position of the work of earlier generations.
Why and how has all this change come about? Two facts have interlocked and conspired in producing a supposed change. I aim to explore and deal with this ques- tion both historically and ideologically. I will highlight the historical nature of the struggle specifically in visual art, but also what emerged politically and socially in parallel to this struggle, and their interconnections. The struggle for the recognition of Britain’s black or African/Asian artists was not an isolated struggle within the artworld. There were also other struggles outside, both in political and cultural arenas, which together played highly complex and contradictory roles. While the socio-political and cultural struggles in general had created an awareness of the need for this society to recognise its postwar multicultural reality, these struggles somehow failed to confront the institutions with their failure to acknowledge what had been the historical achievement of all people in art within mainstream modernist developments. What we see as change today has occurred not as a result of awareness or desire for change, following external or internal criticisms, but only as a response to socio-political pressures from the so-called ‘ethnic minority’ leadership. The art establishment had no choice but to respond to these pressures, as things had begun to get out of hand, and the result was multiculturalism or cultural diversity. This got the system off the hook, as a change of this sort could be brought about without confronting or challenging its basic institutional structures.
A second factor to recognise is that multiculturalism is a broad cultural phenomenon resulting from the genuine desire of the immigrant communities to maintain their own cultural roots and assert themselves culturally through these forms. But this has played into the hands of the establishment as a means to impose its own agenda of cultural diversity, which would end not in the recognition of the histori- cal struggles of African/Asian people in Britain for equality but in the emergence of cultural spectacles whose purpose is merely to provide exotic entertainment.
This shift from initial critical engagement with society to the present multi-cultural entertainment industry has not happened suddenly but through a gradual process which involved the artistic as well as socio-political struggles of these ‘ethnic minority’ peoples. Their initial welcome into postwar reconstruction faded as Britain recovered its economic self-confidence and voices hostile to immigrants began to be heard. This, in my view, affected the status of African/Asian artists and contributed to their disappearance from the British art scene.
We cannot begin to understand this complex socio-economic phenomenon, which has affected two generations of British artists of all ‘ethnic’ origins, without grasping the nature and ideology of the neoliberal worldview for which the value of every human effort is measured by its success in the market place.
In 1968 Enoch Powell, a highly respectable and respected parliamentarian, de- livered his famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in which he proposed the expulsion of those he considered new immigrants arrived from the British Commonwealth. Perhaps there is no direct connection between Powell’s speech and how black artists have been subsequently treated, but his views are important in understanding the perception of ‘other’ artists in Britain, as well as in the West as a whole. Powell had persistently maintained that he was not racist but was only concerned with what was happening to Britain as a result of postwar immigration. The new immigrants were disturbing the established order by changing the character of British society and its culture, and for him this change was unacceptable. However, he would be happy with a small manageable minority, which kept to its own affairs and did not intervene or interfere with the values of the white mainstream culture. He also in his subsequent statements maintained that African and Asian people could never belong here because they were of different racial and cultural stocks.
Powell’s view represents two things: a) African/Asian people do not belong to British society but a small ‘manageable’ number of them can be accepted to perform specific jobs; b) they cannot and should not be allowed to penetrate and disturb the established order of British society. This view is not just Mr Powell’s, but is a foundation of British institutions and indeed of the West as a whole, by which those who are not of European racial origins are constantly marginalised by relegating them to culturally defined manageable minorities.
It is interesting to remember that Mr Powell was himself responsible for persuading peoples from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent to come to Britain as labour recruits. There is a striking analogy here. Just as cheap labour, once used, was cast aside, so also artists no longer required to give exotic colour to the British art scene were ignored.
What happened in the British art scene subsequent to Mr Powell’s speech? In 1972 there was an important show of ‘New Art’ at the Hayward Gallery representing decisive conceptual shifts and breakthroughs in art in the second half of 1960s. It was meant to canonise certain artists and secure their place in history, but, not surprisingly, all the artists included in the show were white. Even an artist like David Medalla, for example, whose avant-garde activities were well known and whose ideas had influenced some of the artists in the show, was excluded. The art critic Rosetta Brooks has recently recognised Medalla’s influence:
His project... anticipated both American and British land art by nearly a decade. Medalla’s art was a challenge to that cut-off of the fragmentary commodity which formalism created out of the art work. His works were too cosmic, too political, and too all-inclusive to submit to commodifying fragmentation. For Medalla, the art work was an opportunity to communicate rather than an opportunity to fall into reverential silence.2
In 1963, Medalla began to make his kinetic sculptures in which he used commonplace materials like liquid soap, sand or mud, much before similar materials became the hallmark of Arte Povera. In 1964 he published a series of proposals for conceptual work, such as walking, sleeping, panting and singing sculptures.3 In 1967, he gave up making art individually in favour of working collectively with poets, musicians, dancers, singers and others in what he called the ‘Exploding Galaxy’. His pioneering and revolutionary ideas had tremendous impact on some, albeit reactionary, British artists who were hailed as innovators in the ‘New Art’ show. One can think of the celebrated walks of Richard Long, and the singing sculpture of Gilbert and George.
Medalla’s exclusion from this historical exhibition was by no means an unusual occurrence. It had happened to many African/Asian artists before and continues to happen even today. The 1976 exhibition in Milan, ‘Arte Inglese Oggi: 1960–76’ (English Art Today: 1960–76) selected by the British Council, representing all the developments that had taken place since the 1960s, included more than sixty artists – but none of them was an African or Asian. Even those African and Asian artists who had been highly successful and celebrated in the 1960s were not there. This happened again in the big Paris retrospective of British art in 1979 ‘Un Certain Art Anglais’ (A Certain English Art); and the story is endless. The point I am emphasising is that artists of African/Asian origin were not altogether neglected or ignored, but none were considered when it came to defining and constructing the genealogy of the history of modern art and its various developments. This amazing anomaly is not at all amazing when we appreciate that history is not necessarily an objective account of facts but is ideologically constructed and upheld by its ideological players.
It is hardly enough to invoke Mr Powell’s explicit and transparent views to understand why these artists could not be part of British history. The underlying ideas are much more complex and operate subtly through sophisticated art institutions. They can, and often do, transcend the ideological distinction between right and left. Powell’s speech did of course have much more visible and direct reper- cussions on the general situation of African/Asian people in Britain than anything that happened to artists. Following his speech, many white workers came out on the streets in support of his position, and right-wing fascist organisations emerged whose young followers became known as ‘skinheads’, notorious for their racist violence.
Powell’s speech also had further historical significance. It coincided with a shift to the right in British politics, a reaction to the growing radicalisation not only of politics but of culture. The end of the sixties was an intense political period, characterised by student uprisings in Paris and elsewhere, growing worldwide opposition to the war in Vietnam and solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles. Many radical African/Asian organisations were also created to mobilise their communities and demand an end to racism and secure equality for all citizens. Some artists also joined in this struggle, which led to the formation of ‘Artists for Democracy’ in 1974, and helped to politicise many artists in favour of anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles.
These radical developments and growing militancy among the non-white population faced the establishment with a difficult situation. What could be done about it? The problem was how to avoid doing anything that could create a further threat to its established order. A solution had to be found that would appear to offer something positive, but in reality would diffuse and displace these escalating radical demands. If the establishment could find some African/Asians to co-operate in this respect, it could do the trick. So began the lure of cultural funding.
In 1973, the Gulbenkian Foundation invited some people from the African/ Asian communities to a one-day conference to discuss what was described as the ‘black problem’. But radical black groups, knowing what was on the agenda, boycotted the conference. We do not know exactly what was decided at the conference, but, given that the Gulbenkian Foundation is a cultural organisation, the conclusion must be obvious. It must have been about culture and its role in community relations.
Following this, a journalist, Naseem Khan, was commissioned by the Gulbenkian Foundation, with backing from the Arts Council and the Community Relations Commission, to investigate the matter. After two years’ research, Naseem Khan produced a report, The Arts Britain Ignores: The Arts of Ethnic Minorities in Britain.4 The report’s conclusion was that the so-called minorities had their own traditional cultural forms, and these forms had been ignored. And that is why black people felt excluded from mainstream British society. In order to make these minorities feel at home in Britain, they must be encouraged to develop and express themselves through these forms.
As far as I remember, it was the first time that I came across the word ‘ethnic’ to describe African and Asian communities, and with this emerged the so-called ‘ethnic minority arts’. Nothing much happened immediately, but it did lay the foundation for what was to become a minority discourse separated from the majority mainstream context. Similar things occurred at the same time in other parts of the Western world wherever there was a significant non-white population, particularly in Canada and the US, which eventually led to what we know today as multiculturalism.
While the art establishment was considering the demands for ‘ethnic minority arts’ funding, another politician unleashed her racist demagoguery against immigration, some ten years after Mr Powell’s vicious speech which ‘had erupted’ in white violence against black people. Now it was the turn of an ambitious Tory politician who aimed to be Prime Minister. In fact, without that 1979 speech, in which she irresponsibly aroused the fear of the white population against others by saying that ‘this country might be swamped by people of a different culture’, Margaret Thatcher might not perhaps have won the election.
While some politicians turned the presence of black people in Britain into a political issue, in order to stir public opinion against them, the liberal section of society tried to calm the whole thing down and thereby provide a cover for it. But liberalism’s carrot of ‘altruism’ did not arrive in time. With the victory of Mrs Thatcher, it was no longer possible for black people in the 1980s to tolerate their degradation and contain their anger and frustration, and there followed what the media described as ‘black riots’ in the major cities of Britain. When the repressed returned with a vengeance, it became clear to the political establishment that it was not dealing with a docile minority. What it faced was fire with which it could not continue to play without dire social consequences. Something had to be done to contain the growing rebellion of the African/Asian youth. Following these upris- ings and riots, the Thatcher government, which was in the first place responsible for them, appointed Lord Scarman to investigate the matter.
Lord Scarman, who spent considerable time consulting the emerging black community leadership, reached the conclusion that there was ‘cultural alienation’ among the black youth. His report recommended that the Government fund art and cultural projects in areas with large non-white communities. In fact the Arts Council had by then, in 1982, already issued a press release entitled ‘Arts Council to encourage ethnic arts’, in which it announced its intention ‘to incorporate the needs of the ethnic arts as a specific element in its submission to the Government for 1983/84’.5
Mrs Thatcher’s reign produced a general revolt against the Conservative Party that led to the Labour Party’s massive victory in London’s local elections and the takeover of the Greater London Council, under the leadership of Ken Livingstone, with a specific programme of funding the cultural activities of what was officially described as ‘ethnic minorities’. Although the GLC did not last very long, it left a legacy which gave people an awareness of their power to demand their cultural rights. After the abolition of the GLC in 1986, the Thatcher government found itself in a ‘multicultural’ situation it could not ignore; and not surprisingly it instructed the Arts Council to spend four per cent of its budget in that direction. What shall we call this? A paradox, an about turn, or a political strategy to appease or subdue dissidence? How was it that the very same Mrs Thatcher who won the election by inspiring fear in Britain of ‘people of a different culture’ was now prepared to give government support and funding to promote the cultures of the same people? The media also moved in and Channel 4 created a special fund for ‘ethnic minority’ programmes. All this concern for ‘immigrants’ sprang not from a sudden love of their cultures, or an attempt to understand the real significance of what they could contribute in transforming society into an integrated multicultural society. It was rather a farsighted cultural strategy to produce a class of ethnic functionaries that would assist in containing the radical demands of a disenfranchised people for full equality in every section and level of the society to which they had made a great contribution.
However, this official policy of supporting and funding ‘ethnic minority arts’, on the basis of different and specific cultural traditions of different people, gave rise to further social problems with all their ideological implications. But before I go further into this, it would be useful to clarify the complex position that cultural traditions occupy in a modern society, particularly when cultural traditions migrate from their roots to a new habitat in a foreign country.
When people migrate, they carry with them their own cultures, with their forms and values; and when people are confronted with a hostile or an un-inviting host population, their own cultures can provide comfort. Culture in this instance can provide shelter against what is unpleasant and also compensate for what one is not able to achieve in the new country. It is the right of all people to maintain themselves within their own cultures, wherever they are, and it is also their right to protect their cultures, their creative forms and values. In this respect I have no problem with traditional cultures and it should not be an issue.
However one cannot fail to recognise that there are cultural forms produced by feudal, monarchic and theocratic systems. They have their historical value and importance, but when these forms are revived uncritically to give a particular so- ciety or community its contemporary identity on the basis of its past achievement or nostalgia, they do not offer a way forward. Rather, they function regressively by stifling or diverting the creative imagination away from contemporary reality. My concern here is particularly with art and its role in our modern culture. The critical function of this role is often subverted by containing it within the forms that belong to some remote past.
So also we should distinguish between nostalgic desire for old cultures and a cultural resistance in which indigenous traditions can play an important role. An oppressed old culture can rejuvenate itself when it becomes part of a struggle against the oppressor or an oppressive system. But the role of traditional cultures in multiculturalism is entirely different. It is now used to define the social role of those who are considered ‘others’ in contemporary Western societies, to camouflage their real deprivation, and to displace and subvert their growing opposition to what has now become a global system of exploitation and plunder.
The emergence of the idea of ‘ethnic arts’ in the late 1970s did not go unquestioned. Many were swift to realise that there was something insidious behind the estab- lishment’s concern for ‘ethnic’ cultures; it was particularly felt by some artists that they were being ethnicised in order to marginalise them further. I myself wrote a critique of it, soon after Naseem Khan’s report came out in 1976.6
In 1978, I started an art magazine, Black Phoenix. Its first issue contained my ‘Black Manifesto’,7 but it was also meant to give voice to those who were critical of a perceived subtle form of cultural apartheid. It provided a platform to debate and analyse what was happening in art, not only in Britain but globally. Our position regarding the status quo was very clear. Our position as artists was at once specific but also part of the overall struggle against cultural imperialism. We did not sepa- rate the struggle in art from the socio-economic and political realities.
One of the most important developments of the early 1980s was the emergence of what its protagonists called ‘Black Art’. It was not a name given to anything that might be produced as art by black people, but to the specific work done by a group of young black artists in opposition to the prevailing order. This group, whose main figures were Eddie Chambers and Keith Piper, both born in Britain of African-Caribbean parents, not only accused the system of institutional racism but wanted to make art that confronted racism and imperialism. Their ultimate aim was to make art for the black community as a weapon of resistance in Britain and globally. They called for the unity of African people all over the world against the oppressive forces of imperialism.8
This laid the foundation of what became known in the 1980s as the ‘Black Arts Movement’, which drew in many young black art students, and was an impetus for a debate critical of the system. Art institutions were accused of deliberately ignoring and suppressing the history of African/Asian artists in Britain. And that was something the promoters of ‘ethnic arts’ did not talk about but rather seemed to collude with the establishment in suppressing and undermining. However, as the establishment’s own agenda of ‘ethnic arts’ began to gain popular support among the deprived classes, for whom something was better than nothing, the ‘Black Arts Movement’ was subverted. There were enough people happy to be part of the system.
At the end of the 1970s, exactly when this critical debate was going on, a young Indian man finished his postgraduate course at Chelsea College of Art. He visited India after leaving college. There he saw piles of colourful spices being displayed in bazaars in the form of conical shapes placed on the ground. On his return to London, he made similar shapes with powder pigments in dazzling bright red, yellow, blue and other colours, and immediately got a gallery to show them. Soon after, Anish Kapoor was the talk of the art world.
In 1982, something else extraordinary happened that seemed to pave the way for Kapoor’s successful career. It was the grand ‘Arts of India’ festival which occupied almost every major gallery and museum in London. Another paradox? Why would a right-wing Conservative government be interested in the arts of India? Was it another means of appeasing the Indian community in Britain? Of course, the festival was used as an exercise in community relations, but was there not a hidden agenda of far more importance? The festival did attract the interest of a large number of people from the subcontinent, but it had another aim. Did not Britain subsequently gain a profitable contract with India to supply her with advanced military hardware, among other things?
Whatever the real motives behind the festival, it was undoubtedly an impressive event. It provided an opportunity to see the cultural richness of Indian civilisation, going back to ancient Vedic times. It happened also in the wake of Salman Rushdie’s successful novel, Midnight’s Children, for which he won the Booker Prize in 1981. Although a brilliant work, it was a nostalgic look at India as a faraway exotic place. The media was already in a state of obsessive celebration of Rushdie’s fantastic India when the Indian festival opened in the spring of 1982, fuelling more public fascination with everything Indian. It was in some way a déjà-vu – a return to the Maharishi of the 1960s hippy period.
In the same year, Whitechapel Art Gallery held an important show, ‘British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century’, which included all the figures that the establishment considered to be historically relevant. Nobody expected this show to include an African/Asian artist, but, to everyone’s surprise, Anish Kapoor appeared in the second part. It was a surprise because Kapoor was a newcomer to the art scene. It was yet to be seen whether he would achieve anything historically significant that would make him eligible to stand amongst the prestigious British sculptors of the twentieth century. He was not on the list of the artists the gallery had issued before the exhibition, nor was he mentioned in the catalogue. The decision to include Kapoor in the show seems to have been a last minute one, the logic of which might elude us. But it does have a logic that we will presently unfold. Following this show, he was taken up by the Lisson Gallery, and is now one of the most celebrated artists in the UK and world-wide.
I am not objecting to the inclusion of Kapoor in the Whitechapel show or to his subsequent promotion by the art establishment. But there seems to me clear ideological motives for this, other than those by which important artworks tend to be recognised. For this was the mo- ment when the issue of the exclusion of Africa/Asian artists from art history had become public knowledge and was being publicly debated. Kapoor’s arrival on the scene, with his Indian exoticism, helped the establishment to defuse the controversy. Kapoor is an intelligent and imaginative artist, and he has every right, like any other artist, to pursue a successful career. That is not the point. The issue is the nature of the role bestowed on him, whatever and apart from the genuine merits of his work, and what this signified in the early 1980s, and subsequently, when the system was confronted with the demand for a radical change in its institutional structures. He appeared in the establishment’s view to conform to the notion that the work of non-white artists is authentic only when it makes a connection with their African or Asian cultures. Kapoor was the opportunity needed by which the system could make plain what it specifically expected from African/Asian artists in Britain. They would not easily obtain recognition unless their works showed their African or Asian credentials, related only to their own cultural conditions of being.
Other black artists, who had enjoyed success in the early 1960s, owed it to the establishment’s discovery and celebration of some traces of ‘African/Asian cultures’ in their works. Judging by the success of Kapoor, and of many others since, as a result of their use of their ‘ethnic’ cultural identities in their work, the whole thing has come full circle.
The colonial system has always responded to the demand of the colonised for equality by diverting their attention to their own traditional systems. When at the end of nineteenth century India’s Westernised middle-classes demanded self-rule, it was seen by the colonial rulers as a dangerous consequence of modernity. They then tried to persuade this class to give up Western ideas and look to their ancient cultures for the solution to contemporary problems. In art this happened when the Englishman E B Havell became principal of the Government School of Art, Calcutta, in 1896. Havell realised that the British Empire was at risk because the Westernised Indians had begun to aspire to the Western liberal system and its humanist values – ironically, introduced there to educate and civilise the Indians – and were demanding that the system put in practice what it was teaching. He immediately put a stop to all modern methods of teaching and sent his students to study the ancient Vedic texts.9
A section of the ‘native’ middle-class intermediaries, by seeking to accommodate itself to the imperial structure through increasing participation in the economy and administration of the colony on the basis of equality, may eventually pose a threat to the colonial mode of production and administration. When this happens, as it did towards the end of nineteenth century, with persistent middle-class demands for modernisation, imperialism turns to the anti-modernity traditionalists. Hitherto opposed to imperialism because of the threat it posed to pre-modern institutions, the traditionalists now become imperialism’s natural ally against their common enemy – the modernising middle-class. Havell appealed to the imperial masters in London by saying: ‘In honouring the Indo-Aryan forerunners of India, we shall honour ourselves and make the most direct and effective appeal to Indian loyalty’.10
Anish Kapoor’s success, like that of his African American contemporary Jean- Michel Basquiat in the US, marked the beginning of the cultural phenomenon from which emerged a postcolonial Other. This new Other enters into the Western system of modernity through the backdoor of postmodernism, not inferiorised or degraded this time but celebrated as an expression of the benevolent multiculturalism of Western societies. With all due respect to Kapoor, I could not overlook his declaration that there was no such thing as racism in art. When I reprimanded him for this, he wrote to me: ‘I... feel that the most effective way of combating racism is by way of making an art which is rigorously Indian and not by political action.’11
In 1989, I organised ‘The Other Story’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, in which the history of art produced by African/Asian artists in Britain was put on display so that the public could see for themselves the achievement of multiracial Britain.12 The show was received enthusiastically by the public, but the art institution as usual displayed an indifference which even to this day remains the hallmark of the institutional attitude. Kapoor was invited to take part in this exhibition, but he declined – which was of course his prerogative. The opening of his own show at the Lisson Gallery in the same week as ‘The Other Story’ gave the media an opportunity to rubbish ‘The Other Story’ and dismiss any suggestion of racism in the artworld.
It is now believed by some, if not indeed many, from the so-called ‘Third World’ that to pursue a course within the historical trajectory of modernism amounts to mimicry of Western culture. This, in my view, is based on a simplistic reading of some ideas in Western philosophy going back to Immanuel Kant and G W F Hegel. Of course, there are many disturbing contradictions in this discourse, with perni- cious racism hidden behind its Eurocentricity, but this philosophy also provides the means to overcome these contradictions and possibly resolve them. Rejection of modernism also means rejecting the Hegelian-Marxist tradition which lays down the basic framework of the dialectics of struggle for universal liberation. If there are now problems with this tradition, it not only has to do with its prevailing Eurocen- tricity but also with how Eurocentricity constructed the framework and narratives of modern art history.
The history of modernism is a history of colonial discourse, the logic of which demands that it construct and maintain Eurocentric narratives. But what purpose do these narratives serve when their underpinnings have collapsed with the end of colonialism? The obvious answer would be to assume that what was a manifestation of colonialism should have ended with the end of colonialism. But how would one then explain why the history of modern art in the twentieth century is still the exclusive history of white European and North American artists?
I have been asking this question for more than two decades, but no one within the established order seems concerned with it. It is either dismissed as irrelevant or sometimes elicits the sort of sympathy that assumes the inability of African/Asian Others to enter the modernist discourse and prove their worth. This assumption is entrenched in the Eurocentric ideology of modernism. But why does this assump- tion persist without being tested rationally against the facts that apply to a critical discourse on the assessment and legitimation of art? Modernity has emerged from and is defined by Europe and cannot therefore be anything but Eurocentric. But what lies masked behind Eurocentricity is not simply the fact that Europe has been the centre of the world since its ascendancy five hundred years ago, but how this centre is defined and constructed. This centre is maintained as the exclusive domain of the ‘master’ and the rest of the world as that of the ‘subalterns’. This relationship between the centre and what surrounds it peripherally is then reinforced racially. Upon this relationship a philosophy of (art) history has been constructed, the agen- cy of which is attributed exclusively to the white subject. For Hegel, the dynamic of history – and the very ability to move forward with new ideas – is dependent on a human agency that has the freedom to define itself and others. But the subaltern or the colonised cannot be the agent of history.
Therefore, since the philosophy of (art) history is constructed in the language of modernity, should this language not be the centre of struggle? If this language is the language of domination, then the struggle of the ‘other’ would be to seize it and turn it against domination. Although all artists who pursue radical alternatives to what is already legitimised by the institutions have to struggle to find something new to enter modernism’s history, the struggle I refer to has an additional dimension. While pursuing what is taken for granted by white artists – their place in history – black artists have constantly to struggle against this taken-for-granted position.
Euro-ethnocentricity continues to define and determine the still prevalent histori- cal framework of modernism in which racism in art resides. Behind this lurks the perpetuation of the colonial myth of white intellectual supremacy – but precisely this linkage of presumed supremacy has been debunked by the pioneering avant- garde works of some African/Asian artists in Britain.
The achievement of an earlier generation of ‘other’ artists was not merely that they managed to penetrate the citadel of modernism and claim their place in it as free subjects. They also challenged its prevailing ideology and redefined modernism beyond its Euro-ethnocentric premise; and by so doing they expanded its premise, so that it became an expression of the freedom of all peoples from all cultures. This was part of the critical process to move the colonialist society on to its next historical phase, to help it decolonise itself and its institutions, so that it could recognise the equality of all its citizens without relegating some to the status of ‘ethnic minorities’. African/Asian modernists were not unusual in following the avant-garde creed of challenging the established order of things. But what was unusual was that this time a new challenge came from those defined by the dominant ideology as the Other, from those considered peripheral to this modernist tradition. One should not be surprised that this challenge was sidelined, and with it an important part of postwar history. We do not yet have a proper theoretical or philosophical discourse vis-à-vis art history that is able to criticise modernism’s hidden Euro-ethnocentricity so that it can open the doors of modernism to all, irrespective of racial or cultural differ- ences.
Producers of art of whatever ethnic origin in contemporary culture must be free from any predetermining perceptions and constraints of specific cultures. To force individual artists into a predetermined cultural territory is similar to what apartheid did to black artists in South Africa. The success of a few black artists today should not disguise the fact that behind their success lies a discourse of discrimination. Apartheid is apartheid even when it operates benevolently towards those who are deprived and oppressed. Such an institutional strategy could only succeed because enough people, including artists, were ready to oblige. The basic objective of this strategy was to safeguard the white genealogy of modern art history from the contamination of the ‘other’ by locating the ‘other’ artists somewhere else and in such a way that they would not demand a place in what they themselves had denounced as Eurocentric. This strategy has now become so successful that no international exhibition today can afford to be without African/Asian artists, either from the metropolis or mainland Africa or Asia. The success of a number of these artists today becomes an alibi in the neglect and suppression of earlier works which questioned and challenged the white hegemony of modernist art history. Moreover, their celebrity status has undermined the possibility of an oppositional discourse among the deprived and powerless that would expose African/Asian collusion with a system that refuses to come to terms with its colonial past and its legacies. No wonder that this success also coincided with the end of the ‘Black Arts Movement’ in Britain, which began its discourse in the avant-garde tradition of dissent and opposition.
The success of the system in maintaining its status quo was much strengthened with the fall of the Soviet bloc in the 1990s and the global triumph of neoliberal capitalism. The success and institutional celebration of some young artists from ‘other’ cultures today is an essential part of the success of the market economy at the global level in which all cultures are allowed to play their traditional roles. And with this has arisen the postcolonial Other – in various forms of ethnic, racial, cultural or political otherness – who is happy to be inside the system whatever it entails.
Nor is it any wonder that most artists today have succumbed to the pressures of globalised capital and the expansion of the art market and its constant appetite for exotic objects. My point is that most of the work of contemporary artists from the Third World, whether they live in the West or in their own countries, and particularly that work now being institutionally celebrated as part of the multiculturalism of the West, is not entirely what the artists might have produced had they been free to act historically by taking a radical position in art, or even as an expression of their imagination as free individuals. Those who pursue art as a profession and aspire to a successful career are subject to coercion by the power and benevolence of the West into producing something that does not pose any threat to the structures of Western institutions and their philosophical underpinning. The success of these artists can then also be used to create an illusion of change, to show that change does not mean abandoning old cultural forms, and that people can in fact benefit from staying within the boundaries of their own cultures.
With multiculturalism, and the success in the West of the present generation of artists from all over the world, the postcolonial struggle for equality seems to have come to an end; and with it the end of art as a critical discourse.
The issues I have raised here cannot be resolved by the expediency of multiculturalism or, to be more precise, by parading other cultures in the global arena. We cannot ignore the fact that most cultures do not have their own power of determination in this global scenario, as the ambition of the prevailing dominant system works against the basic needs and individual rights and freedom of a majority of people in the world. Individual freedom of expression, particularly when it comes to contemporary art practice, can neither be realised nor achieved when the means to express this freedom are predetermined by the dominant system on the basis of cultural specificity, even when this predetermination is supposedly for the benefit of many artists.