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New BBC documentary explores hidden black British art

PICTURED: Brenda Emmanus and Sonia Boyce (Photo credit: Lorain Reed-Drake / BBC Studios)

A NEW documentary from BBC Four will uncover the influence of black British art and how it has helped shaped modern art history.

Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain's Hidden Art History, is hosted by presenter and journalist Brenda Emmanus, as she follows acclaimed artist Sonia Boyce who prepares to launch an ambitious new exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery that will shine a light on a host of fascinating British artists of African and Asian descent.

Boyce and her team have spent the past three years scouring public art archives to find out just how many art works by black and Asian British artists the nation really owns, finding only 2,000 that have rarely, if ever, been displayed before.

Speaking to The Voice, Brenda Emmanus said: “Britain has a strong art history which has influenced the world, but there are some names in the black British art world that are hardly known.”

In the 60-minute documentary, they go into stores and rediscover how the works of generations of black and Asian artists have helped shape history, from the Windrush Generation, through 60s counter-culture to the black art movement of the 80s.

“It was such an amazing journey to do this documentary with Sonia and to discover artists like Althea McNish and Frank Bowling. It’s wonderful to realise there were names in the art world which excited me because they were artist from our community that were making art and looked like me,” she added.

“It was a journey of curiosity, learning, questioning and being exposed to people I’ve never heard of and I’m really excited to present them to everybody else and give them their rightful place in our history.”

For the BBC presenter, performing arts was a key interest of hers whilst her love of visual arts developed during her later years.

“As a kid I don’t have a strong recollection of going to museums, but I know I was very much into theatre, dancing and acting,” she recalled.

“Visual arts were more of a late love affair. I knew I liked beautiful things, like fashion – I used to cut out clothes and I imagine that’s why I ended up working on The Clothes Show – and I always had an eye for style and strong visual images. I remember liking paintings but I didn’t know my Monet from my Rembrandt.”

Her passion for visual arts developed when introduced to works from black British artists and further intensified after noticing the lack of BAME artists celebrated alongside the Picasso’s and Tracey Emin’s of the world.

“As the arts & entertainment correspondent for BBC London, I had the opportunity to work on a series of art documentaries, but many rarely featured the prominent works of black British artists.

“I did a documentary with Andrew Marr on the Tate, to one on Charles I and his art collection. My relationship with the arts department at the BBC grew over the years and I’ve done more exciting and challenging work including this.

“Any opportunity there is to promote diversity in the arts I’m jumping on it because it means so much to me.”

The visibility of black, Asian and minority ethnic artists continue to be an on-going issue that Emmanus and Boyce aim to shed light on.

“The thing is, you have to look at who’s curating our culture and what their value system is. A lot of artists in the 1950s and 1960s were defined as black artists and not British artists so they didn’t fit into that cannon and they were isolated and had to find their own way and voice,” she said.

“Now we’re seeing artists like Chris Ofili, Anish Kapoor and Steve McQueen winning the Turner Prize and becoming more mainstream and I think things are starting to change especially with social media.”

The acceptance of black art and black aesthetics is certainly at the forefront. From Black Panther to shows like The Head and the Load selling out at the Tate - the value of our artists are transcending barriers despite elitism still operating in the art world.

“I think the art world is still elitist, but now we’re realising it is and that we still have the right to go and see it. We have a right to see what we want and be influenced in the same way we influence.

“We have to realise that art is for all and it uses a lot of universal themes – love, friendship, hurt plus more and that’s what inclusivity is all about.”

While black faces operating in predominately white spaces has been a hot talking point, Emmanus feels optimistic that this universal feeling which can be felt by people of colour, could change in the future.

“We present other stories and it depends on how open these art institutions are to presenting these stories that stray from the majority. We’ve seen time and time again when the other is allowed in – whether in sport, music, film or more - they can be hugely successful and embraced by all.”

Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain's Hidden Art History will air on BBC Four on Monday 30 July.

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