BAM – The Work Between Us – Bluecoat Symposium – 20 Jan 2016

‘The Work Between Us’: Black British Artists and Exhibition Histories

Bluecoat, School Lane Liverpool L1 3BX


Work Between Us Symposium

20 Jan 2016

09:00 to 18:00

How do artists of African and Asian descent in Britain feature in the story of twentieth-century art?

This one-day symposium will unearth the stories behind exhibitions that have put the practices of African and Asian descent artists on Britain’s cultural map. Lucy Steeds (Afterall Journal), artists Sonia Boyce and Keith Piper, and international curator Paul Goodwin are amongst the speakers discussing ground-breaking exhibitions such as The Other Story, The Image Employed, and Trophies of Empire, bringing to light how they came about, what their impact was and how the artworks in them have peppered and punctuated major developments in twentieth-century art.

Since the 1980s there have been several exhibitions that have taken important steps in illuminating the relationship between black British artistic practices and the well-known narratives in art’s varied histories. The Other Story is one of the best-known of these key exhibitions, breaking ground as the first retrospective exhibition of modernist works by British artists of African, Asian and Caribbean descent, and moreover as the first to attempt to initiate a broader and more cosmopolitan perception of British modernist art. Although The Other Story is often referenced in the historicisation of black British art, particularly in relation to its reception by black artists, scholars and in the press, its position in global discourses of art is often overshadowed by a perception of the exhibition as a parochial event in art history.[1]

Such an understanding of The Other Story may have resulted  from what Jean Fisher identified in her 1997 essay ‘The Work Between us’ as our inability to assess ‘the truth of an event’ as a consequence of ‘prefabricated interpretations of reality and opinions circulated by media channels’. [2]

If the truth of an event – or the significance and impact of an exhibition – is to be brought to light, we must first do the vital work of revisiting exhibitions as objects of study, and in a much deeper and more nuanced way.

Taking Fisher’s plea to attend to ‘the work between us’ as a starting point, this one-day symposium will:

  • establish a discourse around black British artistic and curatorial practices within the burgeoning academic fields of exhibition studies and exhibition histories.
  • examine key, but often overlooked exhibitions involving black British artists and will explore their impact on artists and art institutions, their subsequent historiography and the absence of certain artists and artworks from them.

Given that artworks are intimately bound up with the mode of their appearance in exhibitions, such a focus is essential in ensuring that black artistic practices are framed within central discourses of art and its histories, and not in the parochial spheres that their concomitant exhibitions often have been.

Confirmed speakers:

  • Bryan Biggs MBE
  • Sonia Boyce MBE
  • Bev Bytheway
  • Alice Correia
  • Anjalie Dalal-Clayton
  • Paul Goodwin
  • Jean Hui Ng
  • Sophie Orlando
  • Keith Piper
  • Marlene Smith
  • Lucy Steeds

Plenary chaired by Dr David Dibosa, with artist Nina Edge, Dr susan pui san lok, and Dr Leon Wainwright.

The symposium is organised by Black Artists and Modernism (University of the Arts, London and Middlesex University) a 3-year, AHRC funded research programme investigating the often-understated connections and points of conflict between black British artistic practices and objects and their relationship to modernism.


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[1] At a 2009 symposium titled ‘Exhibitions and the World at Large’ (2009) which focused on the year 1989 and the exhibitions Magiciens de la Terre,The Other Story and the 3rd Havana Biennale, a participant questioned the inclusion of The Other Story, stating that it was ‘so provincial’.

[2] Jean Fisher, 1997, ‘The Work Between Us’ in Trade Routes: History and Geography, Johannesburg Biennale, p.20