This month, the Christie’s King Street galleries will be filled with almost 30 paintings, sculptures, films and soundscapes by the UK’s most visionary Black artists. Traversing the 1980s British Black Arts Movement to the present day, the exhibition encompasses a rich legacy that has all too often been overlooked.
Curated by the 27-year-old Nigerian-British art historian Aindrea Emelife, ‘Bold Black British’ showcases a new project by Samson Kambalu, the latest artist to receive Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth commission; a work by Danielle Braithwaite-Shirley dedicated to the Black transgender experience; as well as The Audition in Colour (1997/2020) by Sonia Boyce – who next year will become the first Black woman to represent the UK at the Venice Biennale – for which she photographed members of the public trying on various Afro wigs.
“I’m really excited about emphasising a different visual to what Black British art is,” says Emelife, who describes her curatorial practise as “a Trojan horse”, a visual disruption to “consider art in new ways and how we’ve been looking at art in the past”. Having studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art, she was appointed to the Mayor of London’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm earlier this year. “As a Black woman growing up in London, I wanted to see myself within the museums, as I think most people do,” she says. “This art has always been there; it’s almost as if we’ve had shutters on us and it’s about taking off those shutters and seeing this beautiful, creative legacy and all these narratives unfold.”
Coinciding with Frieze and Black History Month, ‘Bold Black British’ also gives an important platform to emerging stars of the art world, including Anya Paintsil, whose tapestries woven using her own hair comment on race and gender; and Sahara Longe, who depicts Black bodies within the traditionally white space of Old Master paintings. “Some of them have graduated as soon as three years ago,” says Emelife, “and to see their visual languages intermix and rub against those of these great artists, and challenge how we see art, is exciting – removing the gauze of fame to just consider the ideas behind it.”
An installation by the artist Lakwena, whose work is known for its uplifting messages of universality and connection, will be the first thing visitors see when entering the space – “So when you walk into the doors, you’ll be confronted with this incredible symbol of Black joy, celebration and unity,” Emelife reveals. The exhibition will also present video and sound works in a dedicated room where Emmanuel Adjei’s film Don’t Judge Me, featuring FKA Twigs, will screen. Here, the poet Julian Knxx will also explore notions of identity and heritage in an immersive audio-visual work.
Alongside the exhibition, Christie’s will also host a series of lectures and workshops, including a talk by Emelife on migration, displacement and diaspora. “That feeds on my interest in being from two communities and how that informs your creativity, and how it maybe fosters excitement about learning more,” she reflects. Engaging with visitors in this additional way, for Emelife, is a way of broadening its accessibility. “I don’t want exhibitions to be formidable,” she says. “I want them to be sites of learning. These are narratives that haven’t been embraced in the education system, so I would love to see art-history courses that have them inbuilt.” This is also what Emelife aims to do within her role in the Mayor of London’s Commission for Diversity. “I think there’s a danger in othering Black art – it needs to just become part of the history books,” she says. “I’m really excited to look to the future because there’s so much ground for changing the game.”
Emelife has undoubtedly hit the ground running, with two books on the way next year, a number of exciting international exhibitions lined up (featuring works by Joy Labinjo and Mickalene Thomas, among others) and several documentaries in the pipeline. “I like to think of art as the emotional memory of the world,” she muses. “We have a duty to make sure that it memorialises all of humanity and all of its troubles, all of its beauty, all of its creativity.” Within her curatorial Trojan horse, Emelife is honouring that duty, bringing fresh perspectives to the world, whether new or those that have been forgotten by history. As she says, “The power of art is to challenge us and encourage us to look to the past in order to build a better future.”
‘Bold Black British: A Legacy’ is at Christie’s King Street until 21 October. A number of the works are available to buy via Christie’s private sales.
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