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‘A Systemic Amnesia’ – Sonia Boyce’s Speech Acts Exhibition, Manchester Art Gallery

Sonia Boyce is a spearhead for modern black artists in Britain, focusing on the Black Artists and Modernism programme (BAM) to produce something quite spectacular. Her goal is to bring the forgotten black artists of the mid to late 1900s to the forefront of modern art. She places them alongside the works of other well-known artists so they may garner the attention she feels they deserve. The Speech Acts Exhibition in the Manchester Art Gallery has reintroduced hidden artwork, from a plethora of collections across Britain, and placed them all in one space.

In a BBC 4 documentary accompanying the work of Boyce, she claims she had found over 2,000 pieces in only 30 collections. The exhibition is a landmark celebration, dedicated to the artistic flair and talent of black artists, with personal favourites such as Lubaina Himid and Chris Ofili, whose works have been featured on the walls of the Manchester gallery.

Boyce did not limit himself to the works of only black artists, but rather, wanted to put ‘lesser-known works’ (that had been viewed a certain way due to the context and biography of that time) alongside the ‘collection highlights’.

Boyce reveals the role museums play in telling or suppressing histories. Galleries that, for years, have held black artists’ masterpieces in storage to collect dust instead of giving black artists the opportunity to promote their work inside their walls, fail to preserve and celebrate those histories.

Tailor Striker Singer Dandy by Lubaina Himid

Poignant works include Himid’s The Tailor (2010), a piece that promotes black identity with the theme of pride in who you are. Himid captures this aura through the vibrant use of paint, inspired by West African textile design, and recreating it in a contemporary fashion. Himid was the first black female artist to win the 2017 Turner prize, and accredits her triumph largely to these series of paintings. Other works include Aubrey Williams’ emphatic Birth of Maridowa (1959), an intriguing and abstract acrylic on canvas painting, in which Williams recreates the moment his daughter was born. He makes full use of heavy brushstrokes and dashes of sharp colour to add passion and pride to the prestigious occasion, where he and his daughter are depicted as the central, powerful figures on the canvas.

Birth of Maridowa by Aubrey Williams

Regardless of the polemical challenges that Boyce has posed to the art world, she is a woman who seeks out the black artists being overlooked. She describes the recent state of affairs involving black artists and their work as ‘systematic discrimination in the art establishment’. It is clear now that the discourse of art history is changing, with influential organisations such as BAM promoting young black artists, as well as future exhibitions (such as Frank Bowling in Tate Britain, scheduled in 2019), which shows that there is finally a bright and promising approach for young emerging black artists in Britain.

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