1980s & 90s Posters & from Fowokan’s Archives

 

Discovering Black Art in the 80s and 90s

 

Placing a plaque at the former site of the Keskidee Centre in April of this year was an important commemoration of Britain's first arts and cultural centre for the Black community. It was founded in 1971 near King's Cross station by Guyanese-born Oscar Abrams and his colleagues. For many years, it was the only place to experience Black theatre in London. Black community activists of the 60s and 70s struggled to establish cultural and community centres, despite being tax payers there was limited state assistance available for the promotion of Black art and expression.

Following the riots at the annual Notting Hill Carnival in the late 1970s, Brixton and other inner cities in1981, we saw an explosion of Black arts and cultural expression throughout the UK, particularly in London.  Painter, Ossie Murray designed the first of the posters in this collection from Fowokan’s archives. Ossie’s poster, promoting Anton Phillip’s production of Derek Walcott’s ‘Remembrance’ at the Keskidee Centre, contains the day and month but the year is missing, this is true for quite of a few of the posters in this collection; it is likely that the period was the early 80s as the Keskidee Centre closed around that time.

 

 

The posters on display here, though not a complete chronological set, tell an interesting history of Black arts and Black activism in 1970s and 80s UK. They also provide useful lessons about how we wish to have our histories told. Many of the organisations which the posters advertised are no longer in existence. They were funded by the Arts Council or Greater London Council and closed when funding was withdrawn. Black arts organisations such as OBAALA (Organisation for Black Arts Advancement and Leisure Activities), MAAS (Minority Arts Advisory Service) Creation for Liberation and Caribbean Crafts Circle were not the only Black led organisations/ bodies that supported Black arts. Bogle L’Overture Publishers and The Walter Rodney Book Shop, the Black Cultural Archives, among others were community/ campaigning groups who lobbied for Black people to have a greater stake in British society and often utilized the arts to communicate the message.

 

The absence of the year on the posters is clearly accidental. But unwittingly, it suggests a similar approach to ‘art’ in ancient Africa, when ‘art’, that is masks, wood carvings, ceremonial attire and the like were created for religious/ ritualistic purposes and often discarded afterwards. Despite this important omission, you will still find among this collection of posters significant stories of our journey as Black people in the UK of the 70s and 80s, told through the work of our artists and community/arts organisations. The posters’ themes and contents give a sense of our state of mind during those times and is a useful reference point from which to reflect on our current thinking as well as the future. I cannot help but wonder about those emerging artists of the 70s and 80s, who created the posters and whose works the posters advertised, where are they now? What effect did the demise of the GLC and the restructuring of Arts Council funding on their practice? Are they still practising? Sadly some are no longer with us, Joseph Olubo, Donald Rodney and Jon Churchill among them.

 

Whatever your opinions may have been about the Black organisations that promoted Black arts, their demise has dispersed Black artists, as well as a common focus on things Black or ‘a’ Black struggle. They created safe, radical centres of ‘community’ and brought art to ordinary Black people.

If you were around the Black arts scene of the 70s and 80s, these posters will provide a nostalgic trip down memory lane. If you are new to these posters, they will provide an insightful historical account of Black culture and community at the time. This collection of posters is a useful record in illustrating an historical period of Black arts in the UK and a hint of our struggle and how we saw ourselves. Did the coordinators and designers of these posters imagine that 30 and 40 years on we would be looking at the content and imagery of the posters to describe Black life at the time? Did they expect the posters to still be in existence? I don’t think they did, I think if they did, the date would consciously have been important. I think the 70s and 80s were periods of awareness and exploration for Black people in the UK, our confidence and a sense of permanence was emerging. I don’t think we were purposefully marking and laying firm foundations, but I do know that we are now firmly here in the UK to stay and the posters are telling of our shaky start to arriving at this consciousness of permanence.

 

After years of living among Europeans with their preservation and conservation of arts/ artefacts in museums, galleries and archives, we’ve learned that we too need to collect and preserve so that our children and grandchildren can have our historical reference points, these posters do just that.

Dr Margaret Andrews

August 2011