Black Art Matters: The creatives demanding better representation in UK galleries

The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a light on the systemic racism and social disparities experienced by the Black movement.

If it’s not healthcare, then it’s in education, the justice system, access to nature, social care. There hasn’t been a sector that hasn’t been blighted by prejudice.

Now, a couple of creatives have turned the spotlight on this country’s overly white art scene.

Did you know that just 2,000 artworks in the UK’s permanent art collections are by Black artists – most of which aren’t on display?

2,000 may sound a lot but given that the National Gallery alone has over 2,300 works and that there are over 1,400 galleries in the UK, it’s a minute number.

The UK’s permanent collections are made up of millions of pieces of art and objects.

That’s why secondary school art teacher, Annis Harrison, decided to lead the Black Art Matters protest which took place today (5 September) outside the National and Portrait Galleries in London.

Drawing attention to the lack of representation in national collections, the protest asked the National Galleries and other institutions to concentrate on building and displaying works created by Black and POC artists.

Annis got the idea for the movement during a recce to the National Portrait Gallery – to which she was planning to organise a school trip. There, she found only five pieces by people of colour.

She told Metro.co.uk: ‘The demonstration was about the underrepresentation of Black artists and the Black body within the artwork in our national institutions.

‘We found out that there are about 2,000 works by Black artists that are kept in our national institutions but aren’t on display – which is holding back the history of black art and the European Black art canon.

‘It’s really important for the education of future art students in this country to know what Black artists and artists of colour have contributed to this country’s art history. We’ve been here for 3,000 years – this has to be part of what we see.

‘When we as art educations take students to these institutions, they need to know the true history.

‘We also need to look at what people are sitting in committees within these institutions – we need a selection of Black people and people of colour to be involved because they’re the ones who are selecting and creating the art canon of this country.’

At the protest, speakers included Bolanle Tajudeen, founder of Black Blossoms School of Art and Culture, and cultural historian Patric Vernon OBE.

Annis has been busy creating a series of portraits of young, mixed-race Londoners in the style of classic portraiture and many of her subjects turned up to the protest – holding placards made outside Annis’ home when the schools remained closed post-lockdown.

On a very practical level, Bolanle’s Black Blossoms art school is re-centering art made by Black female creators.

While it’s incredible that people like Annis and Bolanle are doing these things for our community, it should really be the mainstream art work who takes responsibility for representing everyone and telling this country’s visual stories. Black Brits are an integral part of this island’s history.

Remember: we can only be what we see and if we don’t see Black and non-white creators in gallery spaces, what message does that continue to send out to younger generations?

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