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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 210-213

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Book Review

Transforming the Crown: African, Asian, and Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966-1996

Transforming the Crown: African, Asian, and Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966-1996, ed. M. Franklin Sirmans and Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. Distributed for the Caribbean Cultural Center/African Diaspora Institute. 177 pp. Plus 73 color and 175 black and white illustrations. ISBN 0-9654082-0-5.

Transforming the Crown is the catalog of a major exhibition of several generations of "black British" art that was shown at three venues in New York during 1997-98. Even the catalog is a major even that could use a catalog. Lavishly if unevenly illustrated (at times well, but with some rather poor reproductions), it includes very short biographies (usually with a photograph of the artist), a useful chronology of social and political events, an exhibition checklist, bibliography, introduction, and eight essays.

The essays are Mora Beauchamp-Byrd's "London Bridge: Late 20th Century British Art and the Routes of 'National Culture'"; Anne Walmsley's history of the relationship in London between West Indian literary and pictorial arts, "The Caribbean Artists Movement, 1966-1972: A Space and a Voice for Visual Practice"; Kobena Mercer's highly theoretical and somewhat difficult to read "Bodies of Diaspora, Vessels of Desire: The Erotic and the Aesthetic"; Gilane Tawadros's "Running with the Hare and Hunting with the Hounds"; Deborah Willis's "Talking Back: Black Women's Visual Liberation through Photography"; Judith Wilson's "Surfacing the 'Black' Diaspora Web: Postcolonial British Art and the Decolonization of U.S. Visual Culture"; Eddie Chambers's "The Emergence of the Black British Artist"; and Okwui Enwezor's "A Question of Place: Revisions, Reassessments, Diaspora."

The exhibit necessarily raises the unsolvable problem of what is "black" once the word means more than race, color, or a visible minority. Some of the artists photographed here appear so "white" that it might take a racial purity inspector to find a "black" ancestor. It could be said that they are culturally "black," but what have Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia in common except a colonial past? Such an approach leads to those postcolonial cultural theorists who debate when the Irish were transformed from "black" to "white."

The title of the exhibition avoids such problems, but most of the essayists write about black British as if they were a single category and at times it runs into or is seen as an extension of black America without a clear break; to make the problem more confusing there is at least one African American among the artists. This is not a criticism; the meanings of words slip and slide under the pressure of social usage and circumstances, but when the words are used in academic, critical, and political discourse as if they were realities, what was once liberation becomes a cage. At least half of the essays give me a feeling that whenever the authors say "social construction," they are actually thinking of an essentialized and historical "black" that exists as victim, minority, displaced from origins, of African descent, needing state patronage, etc., etc. The art works luckily seem free of such cages. Yes, the Crown is being transformed, but more significant is [End Page 210] the exciting transformation in England of many colonial heritages into contemporary art.

I was only familiar with work by some of the older artists, such as Aubrey Williams, Ronald Moody, and Uzo Egonu. While Williams and Egonu were excellent artists, in Williams's and Moody's works "primitive" and black themes are at times used crudely. With some of the younger artists it is different. Gurminder Sikand appears to have created a world of dream-like imagery as much rooted in India as Chagall's imagination world was Russian-Jewish. Folake Shoga's "Yoruba Tales" is derived directly in imagery and technique from African wax prints. I could buy something similar in Ibadan. Franklyn Rodgers, a British photographer, creates in "Monolith I" a striking superimposition of what...


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