Category Archives: black history

Engaging with Black Bloomsbury

[Kevin Guyan is working as a student engager at the UCL Art Museum over the duration of our Black Bloomsbury exhibition. He has kindly agreed to us cross-posting his blog post ‘Engaging with Black Bloomsbury’ which can be found here:  As part of the series of public events linked to our exhibition, Kevin will be talking on the subject of Going Dancing: Black Bloomsbury and Dance in the 1940s exploring the Black presence in 1940s Bloomsbury and focusing on histories of cultural interaction in social spaces such as dancehalls. The event takes place at UCL Art Museum on 15 November, 2 -3.30pm.]

Engaging with Black Bloomsbury

By Kevin Guyan

Kevin Guyan

 

'Life Painting', Slade School of Fine Art.

‘Life Painting’, Slade School of Fine Art. George Konig, Keystone Press Agency.

The idea of Bloomsbury is as much a product of the mind as it is a geographical location.  Like Soho, its borders have been established through a mixture of real and fictional ideas, dependent more upon common opinion than municipal rulings.  The borders of Bloomsbury have been a common theme discussed by visitors to UCL Art Museum’s ongoing exhibition, Black Bloomsbury.

In my role as a Student Engager, it has been my task to draw links between the exhibition material and my own research interests.  My work explores how domestic spaces impacted upon the production and reproduction of masculinities in the postwar period (c. 1945-1966), a topic not unrelated to some of the themes emerging from the exhibition.  Afternoons spent engaging in the museum have helped shape my own research; offering a refreshing and reflexive dimension to my work.  Discussing people’s opinions on historical ideas has challenged visitors and I to reconsider our views.  The process usually begins with a casual, “is this your first time at the exhibition?”  After this pleasant introduction and explanation of my role within the museum; around half of the visitors will continue to explore the exhibition on their own, the other half will return with their thoughts, their opinions or questions on the work.
Although my own research focuses upon a different time period (1945-1966 rather than 1918-1948) and a different subject matter (White men rather than Black and Asian men and women), I have located some common themes running across both examples:

Space and identity

The relationship between space and experience, particularly within the context of identity, is one key example.  Black Bloomsbury is co-curated by Dr Caroline Bressey and Dr Gemma Romain, from the Equiano Centre based in UCL’s Geography Department, and because of this geographical context, an effective sense of people and place emerges throughout the exhibition.  For example, upon arrival, visitors are met with a large map detailing around 40 locations and a list of characters linked to the exhibition – showing where the characters lived, worked, met and socialised.

The role of place and space links to a secondary project I have been exploring in the past two years, focusing on how bodies were understood within dance hall spaces in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.  In my work, the dance hall is framed as more than simply a backdrop for events and instead participates in my historical research as a productive force shaping the actions described.  For example, my research has explored the architecture and spatial arrangement of dance halls, admission policies, rules and rituals – all components that impacted a particular sense of identity when ‘going dancing’.  It appears to be the case that Bloomsbury had a similar affect upon the characters featured in the exhibition.

Methodology

Equally interesting has been a consideration of the exhibition’s methodological approach.  Alongside paintings, photographs are also displayed as a means to show how historians have been able to ‘see into the past’.  Unlike text sources that may make no mention of race, photographs present a visual window through which it is often possible to ‘see race’.  A key example of this approach in the exhibition is a class photograph of art students based at the Slade in 1938.  Although the name and background of every student is not known, the photograph allows modern-day observers to see the racial diversity of those attending the school at that time.

This is something I intend to echo in my own historical writing, in which actions and behaviours of men in domestic spaces are often hidden or beyond the vision of typical research methods.  Of course, it is very unlikely for source material to indicate that a household task was conducted in a ‘manly fashion’ or read personal accounts by men of domestic space, in which their sense of gender is discussed.  This therefore leads to questions over how best to trace these actions and behaviours?  This can be remedied by examining family photograph albums, documentary footage or any other visual source offering uncontrived access to spaces of the past, allowing historians to ‘see’ what men were doing in the home and how they were interacting with their environment.

Importantly, like Black Bloomsbury, my work also intends to not simply describe the actions and behaviours located or analyse them only within the confines of what is being discussed.  Instead, there is a need to conduct historical leaps – in which ‘everyday examples’ are used to consider what these performances say about wider ideas of race, gender and nation.

Politics and historical baggage

One key focus of the exhibition is on artists and their sitters, based on work developed with the Drawing Over the Colour Line project.  The relationship between artists and sitters has evoked several questions among visitors over the identities of these sitters and how they fit into wider social contexts of early 20th Century London.  What is often most interesting in the photographs of artists and their sitters is not located in the foreground but what is actually taking place in the background of the images.  A particular talking point has been a photograph of a Black male model, sitting perched in a loin cloth in the middle of the room, surrounded by several White, female students.  It is difficult not to see this image of a near-nude Black male and young, White women without setting-off historical alarm bells.  Yet, due to the spatial context of where these people are situated (in an artist’s studio rather than on the street) certain social customs appear to be excused, creating a situation far removed from the moral panic that may be found elsewhere in 1940s London over the association of Black men, quite often American servicemen, and White women.

Engaging upon ideas that are not resident in the distant past, has the potential for divided opinions and clashes over differing histories.  In my own public engagement events on experiences of ‘going dancing’ in London in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, there was often a tension between ‘official histories’ and personal reminiscences.  How can a workable history be extracted from memories – whose memories should matter most?  Should historians try to be as objective as possible or acknowledge that the past can be mined to satisfy contemporary political needs and desires?  These themes also emerge throughout Black Bloomsbury.  Some visitors have questioned the purpose of the exhibition and the political motivation for attempting to expand people’s image of Bloomsbury.  As I see it, it is not an attempt to evict Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes from their associations with Bloomsbury and replace them with a new assortment of characters but instead to complicate this image and suggest that, as was the case with areas like Soho, there was an equally cosmopolitan presence in early 20th Century Bloomsbury.  Through the production of historical geographies or geographical histories, the exhibition and people’s responses to the material continues to show the importance of space in shaping the actions of historical actors and how historical figures are perceived by those living in the present.

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New exhibition: Black Bloomsbury

UCL Art Museum, 23 September – 13 December 2013

The Equiano Centre’s Caroline Bressey and Gemma Romain have co-curated the UCL Art Museum’s autumn exhibition Black Bloomsbury which runs until 13 December.  Based upon research carried out as part of the AHRC-funded project Drawing over the Colour Line: Geographies of art and cosmopolitan politics in London, 1919 – 1939, the exhibition explores and documents the black presence in Bloomsbury from 1918 to 1948, highlighting the geographies of the Black presence in Bloomsbury and interwar politics including anti-colonial and anti-racist activism. The exhibition presents a small number paintings, drawings, and archival documents from UCL highlighting how this Black presence was represented in the artworks of Slade students from the period.  It features the work of Slade students Ivy MacKusick, Ann Tooth, Leila Leigh, JHM Innes, Denis Curry and Ernest Pascoe, and also displays Winifred Knights’ 1920 oil painting Portrait of a Young Woman, one of the works featured in this summer’s Art Everywhere exhibition. The second strand of the exhibition is the documentation of the African and Asian Bloomsbury presence in connection with London’s artworld. Archival material is displayed from UCL Special Collections, the Slade Archives and UCL Record Office related to the presence of Indian Slade students during the 1920s and1930s, including Mukul Dey, Janardan Gondhalekar, Shiavax Chavda and Indumati Sathé and Egyptian and West African students including Amy Nimr, A.A. Yousef, and Ben Enwonwu.

Black Bloomsbury events

Alongside the exhibition we have a number of events including a walking tour of Black Bloomsbury on Saturday 26 October, 12 noon until 1.30pm, to be given by Kevin Guyan exploring topics including geographical settlement, student organisations such as the Indian Students Union, Black visitors to the British Museum’s Reading Room and the fight against the ‘colour bar’ in the area. To take part, meet at the UCL Art Museum.

Co-curator Dr Gemma Romain will also give a talk about women from Egypt and India who studied at the Slade during the interwar period. Join us at UCL Art Museum on the 26 November, 1 till 2pm.

Co-curator Dr.Caroline Bressey will give a talk about African American entertainer Florence Mills, focusing on her time in London in the 1920s. Join us at UCL Art Museum on the 3 December, 1 till 2pm.

Kevin Guyan, a PhD student in the Department of History, UCL will give a talk about the black presence in 1940s Soho and Bloomsbury, focusing on histories of cultural interaction in social spaces such as dancehalls. Join us at UCL Art Museum on the 15 November, 1 till 2pm.

We hope to be adding more events, so for more information about the exhibition or the related events, please contact Dr. Martine Rouleau, Learning and Access Officer, UCL Art Museum, +44 (0)20 7679 2540, m.rouleau@ucl.ac.uk or check back with us or the Equiano Centre website or follow us on twitter.

Exploring Black women’s lives in Britain

The last few months have seen us carry out various events, including workshops on topics relating to interwar art and the Black London presence and a workshop called ‘Exploring black women’s lives in Britain, 1880-1940’. This event was organised in conjunction with Nwakaego Ahaiwe for the We Are Here Black British Feminist Exploration project. At the workshop we discussed and shared historical research on Black women and linked these experiences to our own and others’ experiences and identities as Black women living in Britain today. I talked about the role in art history of Amina Peerbhoy (known as Sunita) and Miriam Patel (known as Anita), two Indian sisters who migrated to Britain in the 1920s, ran a stall at the 1924 Empire exhibition in Wembley and worked as artist models with sculptor Jacob Epstein. Sunita became one of the most celebrated artists’ models of the 1920s and 1930s, but is noticeably absent from much writing on interwar art. As well as drawings, small bronzes, and paintings portraying Sunita and Anita, Epstein modelled his 1927 public sculpture Madonna and Child on Sunita and her son Enver. This sculpture is now housed in the Riverside Church, in New York. Caroline Bressey spoke about her research into black women’s lives in Victorian Britain, highlighting the ways in which visual culture  and archives can be used to uncover previously unknown lives of black people living and working in the imperial metropole. One fascinating story highlighted was that of Victoria Randle and her mother Sarah Davies who were both god-daughters of Queen Victoria with letters and diary entries that form part of the Royal Archives.

P1000064

 

The discussion after our talks was stimulating and rewarding.  Lauren Craig, a London-based artist and arts researcher, reflected on the issues and stories raised in the workshop by composing a poem. She has kindly allowed us to share the poem here:

 

How They Pose

Lauren Craig

 

In their eyes the hatred rose

In the Rose their connection grows

Emblems of an empire

 

In their posture: is that satire?

I see their souls, do their eyes show fire?

Expressions of divine creativity

How these ancient beings inspire

 

Freedom and flare

Life, death desire blurred despair

Survival of lines pencil drawn are rare

Hidden and written out

How they dare!

 

As we bleed into each other

Colour lines become invisible

We are blinded as we suspend dis-belief

The palette is rich

How vibrant, visual, visceral

 

With the seeds of strength for the future

That’s how they pose

 

New event: QBS1 Queer Black Spaces 1

Queer Black Spaces 1 - poster

QBS1 Queer Black Spaces 1

An evening of visual art, poetry and research exploring Black British LGBT histories

UCL Gower Street Campus
Tuesday, February 5, 2013

from 6pm until 9.30pm

£3 entry

For more information and to book a ticket, visit www.blacklgbthistories.eventbrite.com

Join us for an evening showcasing different expressions and histories of Black queer lives, followed by drinks and music. The evening includes poetry, visual art and current research on Black LGBT lives from the early twentieth century to contemporary Britain exploring themes from Black LGBT identities, photography and visual culture, the lives of interwar Black gay artists’ models & Black transgender identities in the early twentieth century.

Participants include:

Ajamu – fine art photographer whose work has been shown in galleries, museums, and alternative spaces worldwide

Caroline Bressey – historical geographer specialising in the black British historical presence and director of The Equiano Centre,  UCL

Alison Oram – Professor of History at Leeds Metropolitan University, specialising in gender and sexuality in twentieth-century Britain

Jay Bernard – award winning poet and first international Resident Writer of The Arts House, Singapore during 2012

Gemma Romain – historian specialising in Black diasporic and Caribbean history, based at The Equiano Centre, UCL

Poulomi Desai, multi-media artist and Artistic Director of Usurp Gallery, London

Nazmia Jamal – teacher, cultural activist and programmer at London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival

An event organised by The Equiano Centre, UCL to mark UCL’s 2013 Diversity Month and LGBT History Month.

Postcards and Bloomsbury black history walking tour leaflets

We’ve recently created the first of a series of postcards and maps highlighting some of the artwork and histories which touch upon the themes of Drawing over the Colour Line. The postcard created is a reproduction of William Roberts’ 1923 The Creole, a portrait of a woman called Hélène Yelin who lived near Bloomsbury and was a friend of the Roberts  family – we’ll be blogging more about her in the next few months. We’ve also used this image as the front of our new walking tour leaflets entitled ‘A Walk Around Bloomsbury’.

The tour explores the black presence in Bloomsbury during 1919-1939 in relation to London’s artworld and focuses on places and spaces connected to individuals and organisations including African-American musician and performer Florence Mills, artists Nina Hamnett and Duncan Grant who created artworks depicting Black Londoners, Harold Moody, Jamaican doctor and President of the League of Coloured Peoples set up in 1931 to combat racism in Britain and promote racial harmony, and the Student Movement House at 32 Russell Square which was set up in 1917 to provide accommodation to support to students from across the world. It also highlights sites of significance such as the British Museum, where writers and artists of African and Asian heritage including Jamaican sculptor Ronald Moody and Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand visited to explore artworks and to research in the reading rooms.

Waterstones Piccadilly branch has kindly created a display of these maps and postcards, which you can see in the images below. If you would like a copy of either, please drop into the branch. Alternatively, please contact us by using the contact form on the blog or by emailing equianocentre@ucl.ac.uk and we will send one out to you in the post.

With thanks to the William Roberts Society for copyright approval for reproducing Roberts’ The Creole and to The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent Museums where the artwork is permanently on display for permission to use their digital image of the portrait.

Note – This post was updated on 25.02.2013