Change for the better

Marlene Smith, Sugar Baby All the Time, 1987, from Blk Art Group exhibition at the Graves Gallery
Marlene Smith, Sugar Baby All the Time, 1987, from Blk Art Group exhibition at the Graves Gallery

THE retrospective in the Graves Gallery for the Blk Art Group has introduced a new generation to the pioneering work of the radical group of young black artists in the 1980s and at the same time provides an opportunity to reflect on their influence.

Not only that, it has given the artists themselves fresh impetus. A Blk Art Group Symposium later this month will bring together artists and curators associated with the group in order to reappraise the cultural and artistic legacy of their work from the early 1980s and explore its relevance for 2012.

Back in the Eighties with an anti-immigrant faction amid the Conservative government, the British National Party on the rise and the Brixton riots unsettling London, the Blk Art Group emerged as a creative force in Britain by producing work which was defiant and thought-provoking.

This exhibition features work by the late Donald Rodney, along with Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers, Marlene Smith and Claudette Johnson which have rarely been seen since the Eighties.

“One of the things the Sheffield show has enabled us to do is to work together again as a group and to think collaboratively, which although we have kept in touch we haven’t done,” says Marlene Smith.

“Each of us has the kind of ethos and thinking that brought us together and is still in evidence now.

“One of the things we are doing now as a result of the exhibition is looking at more of our old work. I found some tapes of the first national conference we organised. This year is the 30th anniversary and we are doing an event and research project on the legacy of that, if you like. We have a new post-Blk generation and that’s going really well and it will be interesting to compare with what we did.”

“It’s really encouraging to see that artists who might have been overlooked before are being given a chance and to see the kind of progress that has been made,” she says.

“It’s a great feeling but I don’t feel complacent about change. It doesn’t take people long to forget and for things to move back again. Politically, what is happening at the moment, seems like a strange revisiting of the Eighties but I do feel encouraged and optimistic about what changes can happen.

“What was lovely about the Sheffield show was that the opening was so well-attended by a wide range of people. You had people in their sixties and others who are doing their O-levels. It was nice to have that interest.”

These days Marlene Smith works on various arts projects in different capacities. After several years based in London she returned to her Midlands roots to become director of The Public, a new gallery in West Bromwich which finally opened in 2008 after being dogged by funding crises, building delays and technical failures.

“Recently I have been doing a project at the Science Museum which has involved working in schools but has also got me making things again. All the time I was developing The Public which was a huge project I prioritised that but now I have the opportunity to create work myself.

“At the same time a number of collaborative projects have come up and I think that’s a lot to do with the Sheffield exhibition and dusting off the old work. I don’t think I had looked at it for 20 years and hadn’t engaged with it.” Blk Art Group Symposium 2012 will take place at the Graves Gallery on February 22 and Marlene Smith will be among the speakers along with fellow members of the group Claudette Johnson and Keith Piper. The Blk Art Group exhibition continues at the Graves Gallery until March 24.