No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960-1990 at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery (10 July 2015 - 24 January 2016) focuses on the space that enabled the production and circulation of works by British artists with backgrounds in the Caribbean or South Asia.
Perhaps the most fascinating dimension of the No Colour Bar exhibition is the recreation of a pioneering and revolutionary venture: the Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop, which was located in West London and operated between the mid 1970s and the early 1990s. The bookshop’s singular name was a conjoining of two towering figures from Black or Pan-African history, Paul Bogle of Jamaica and Toussaint L’Ouverture of Haiti. Bogle had been retributively hanged by the British colonial authorities for his part in a bloody episode of post-slavery revolt that became known as the Morant Bay Rebellion, in which a community of Black Jamaicans had sought redress for their economic and political oppression. This was in the mid 1860s, a number of decades after Toussaint L’ Ouverture had played such a distinguished part in the liberation of Haiti from French slavery.
In order to appreciate the significance of the recreation of the Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop (the proprietors of which were the Guyanese-born publishers and activists, Eric and Jessica Huntley), we have to consider the important part this space and others like it played in the evolution of Black Britain. By the early 1970s many of the hopes and dreams of Caribbean migrants of the postwar years had foundered, and Britain was turning out to be, for many, an environment of pronounced difficulties in social, economic and political terms. While racist violence had to varying extents always been a hallmark of the experience of Black people in Britain, the rise of a new party, the National Front, seemed to ferment a particularly nasty anti-immigrant expression, aimed squarely at people of Caribbean and South Asian background. Furthermore, many of the children of these Caribbean migrants – Black-British youngsters – were experiencing the debilitating effects of poor education, homelessness, unemployment, and what they felt to be intrusive and abusive policing.
Other factors contributed to the setting up of the Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop, but chief amongst them was the need for the provision of literature that in some way spoke to the conditions of Black people, not only in Britain but in other parts of the world, including the Caribbean region, which was itself experiencing no end of social, economic and political tensions at this time. London’s Black bookshops (and those elsewhere in the country), always relatively few in number, became important spaces not only for acquiring books, magazines and pamphlets that addressed the Black experience, but also functioned, critically, as meeting places or spaces of cultural and political exchange, interaction, sustenance, and solidarity. The Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop reflected the ways in which the printed word assumed a profound importance as a means through which the various dimensions of the Black experience could be articulated. At a time when traditional libraries and high street bookshops invariably carried little to nothing about Black people (particularly literature by Black writers) the Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop functioned as a beacon, an oasis, in an otherwise culturally and educationally parched landscape. Crowded with books, every square foot of floor space and virtually every inch of wall space being utilized or occupied, the Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop and others like it exuded a marked blend of cultural defiance and racial nourishment.
Those frequenting such bookshops could find, along with a range of published volumes, such things as cassette or vinyl recordings of Malcolm X’s speeches, small carvings from Africa, and posters of drawings by Ras Daniel Heartman. This popular and influential visual artist of Rastafari was known for his bold and striking depictions of dreadlocked men and boys, dignified, righteous Black madonnas and other Rasta-esque depictions that were as bread and water to a generation of Black youngsters seeking to make sense of their identities as diasporic Africans. There was, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, scarcely a home of conscious young Black Britons that did not contain posters and prints of drawings of heroes such as Malcolm X and the martyred South African anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, alongside the drawings of locksmen, dreadlocked children, and righteous dignified mothers, executed by Heartman. The country’s Black bookshops were essential outlets for such visual matter.
The strikingly original and ambitious idea of physically recreating the Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop within the heart of London’s Guildhall Art Gallery generates an unusual sensory experience. The contrasts between the installation and its wider architectural context could not have been more pronounced or more telling. Here was a studious iteration of the famously down-to-earth, counter-cultural Black bookshop of 1970s and 1980s West London, housed within Richard Gilbert Scott’s grand stone building, whose semi-gothic style has undisguised pretensions to the history and grandeur of the adjacent Guildhall, an ancient building still in use as the symbolic and ceremonial centre of the City of London and its Corporation.
While the self-regarding and somewhat pretentious architecture of the Guildhall Gallery speaks deferentially to the centuries-old culture of avarice, global exploitation, and the naked commodification, for profit, of all manner of things, including people, the Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop installation resonated with an altogether different set of sensibilities – resistance to exploitation, the championing of anti-slavery and anti-colonial heroes, self-empowerment and so on. Here was an opportunity for visitors of a certain generation to recall the heyday of the Black bookshop, and the unparalleled part such spaces played in the cultural evolution of Black Britain. And for visitors of a younger generation, the recreation of the Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop afforded an opportunity get a sense of the ways in which activists in a pre-internet, pre-mass communication, pre-social networking age, were able to fashion an important manifestation of cultural cohesion, supportiveness, direction and affirmation.
The bigger picture of the the Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop installation, and to a large extent the wider exhibition, speaks to the vulnerability of spaces created by and for people of colour in the current moment. With the Black bookshop having been pretty much consigned to history, a valuable set of assets was lost to the Black community. The erasure of Black spaces of nurture and resistance has extended to the small, but wonderful cluster of Black arts centres such as the Keskidee Centre in North London that flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. Like the Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop, such arts centres were often brought into existence by energetic visionaries, rather than local government or other state initiative. But the vagaries and machinations of funding bodies have seen to it that these spaces too have had their day. And though its origins, development and manifestation were of an altogether different order, the current misfortunes of the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) and its mooted eviction from the David Adjaye-designed Rivington Place gallery in Hoxton point to the continued vulnerability of bricks and mortar premises that have a certain raced presence and occupancy.
Eddie Chambers is an artist and historian whose work is included in the No Colour Bar exhibition. He is the author of Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s (I.B. Tauris, 2014).