Cooper gallery Otolith group
Screenshot from The Ignorant Art School | Sit-in Curriculum #3 | DXG | The Otolith Group, Cooper Gallery, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, Dundee, 13 Oct to 16 Dec 2023

Hortense Spillers, renowned American literary critic and Black Feminist scholar, notes in her seminal essay:

…because it was set aside, black culture could, by virtue of the very act of discrimination, become culture, insofar as, historically speaking, it was forced to turn its resources of spirit toward negation and critique.
The Idea of Black Culture, Hortense Spillers, 2006, p. 26

In 2020, British director Steve McQueen’s five-part anthology series, Small Axe narrates the lived experiences of Caribbean people who migrated to London between the 1960s and 1980s. McQueen’s anthology provides a contemporary perspective on a historical moment in Black British history. Both Spillers’ essay and McQueen’s anthology inspired critical conversations around the meanings of Black culture and its material effects and affects, historically and at the present time. Both works enabled a journey back and forth, between past and present, stimulating reflections on generational and transformational change at the online gathering which was part of The Ignorant Art School | Sit in Curriculum #3 | DXG | The Otolith Group, organised and hosted by the Cooper Gallery, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Arts and Design, on 30 November 2023.

Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun of the award-winning Otolith Group, and renowned scholar, anti-racist and social justice activist Professor Augustine ‘Gus’ John, engaged in a two-hour, critical, consciousness raising conversation with the online audience, reflecting on the idea of Black culture in Britain, asking questions ‘…about the demands it makes upon us but also the demands we make upon it’ (Kodwo Eshun). This critical gathering provided an opportunity to speak about the intergenerational trauma occasioned by the location of Black culture(s) within the Racial Capitalocene but also about possibilities for change. Indeed, the potential for more positive futures for Black cultures(s) was previously articulated by Spillers when she noted that:

It is striking that precisely because black cultures arose in the world of normative violence, coercive labour, and the virtually absolute crush of the everyday struggle for existence, its subjects could imagine, could dare to imagine, a world beyond the coercive technologies of their daily bread, but meditating the historical possibilities.
The Idea of Black Culture, Hortense Spillers, 2006, p. 25-26

Against this background, Professor John covered several key topics related to the Black experience in Britain from the 1960s based on his own lived realities as a Grenadian born migrant to the UK in 1964, and his extensive professional experience as an educator, researcher and activist. He challenged the way in which Black culture in Britain was historically pathologised in the education system—here he spoke expansively on the categorisation of Black children as educationally subnormal or ESN. According to Professor John, ‘ESN had more to do with Britain’s racial agenda than with the mental capacity of Caribbean peoples.’ The education system was only part of a wider process of ‘othering’ which manifested at all levels of society including the way in which Black culture was policed and the way in which Black families were represented as dysfunctional. In fact, for Professor John, ‘…the entire Black community was under siege from the state and its apparatuses.’

But within the context of oppression, resistance movements were formed—such as the supplementary school system developed by Black parents who were aspirational and determined to ensure their children would be educated as a route to social mobility. Supplementary schools were therefore used to ‘rebuild Black culture’. Similarly, Professor John gave the example of John La Rose who established New Beacon Books, the first Caribbean publishing house, as a vehicle for Black people to validate their own cultures, stories, and politics, to establish a renewed sense of self. We could also speak on the establishment in 1966 of the Caribbean Artists Movement by the trio La Rose, Jamaican writer and broadcaster Andrew Salkey, and Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite, who provided a platform for a conversation on the manifestation of works by Caribbean artists, poets, writers, dramatists, actors, and musicians. These acts of resistance to the pathologisation of Black culture enabled the emergence of a counter-narrative and alternative epistemologies. And these acts of resistance in Britain did not of course exist in isolation but were part of a global consciousness raising that was occurring amongst many in the African diaspora including in America (duBois, Garvey) and from Caribbean musical forms such as ska, calypso, and soca, contributing to the building of a local Black culture in Britain.

But what of the present? Where is Black culture in Britain today? Can we live in a Britain that is free of racism? Perhaps this is not possible because racism is structural. Perhaps this is not possible because racism:

…is not a question of psychology or behaviour but rather a question of the economic structure of the UK which is built on colonialism and enslavement. So that, if every person is no longer racist then the country would still be underpinned by economic capitalism. The responsibility to speak to racism lies not only in the past but also in the future and we can create it—we define the potential aesthetic form of that responsibility. That is the aesthetic challenge that preoccupies The Otolith Group.
Kodwo Eshun

For Professor John there has been no institutional learning in Britain. The legacies of empire persist and we are still ‘interpreting white Britain to itself’. For Professor John ‘we are in a dangerous moment’. Yet even with this rather pessimistic prognosis, he does see hope for the future. Hope from the young creatives constructing their own realities and forms of resistance. Hope from the potential of art to break down barriers. Hope in the fundamental power of collective action to bring about change across ethnic divides. Hope in the power of independent organisations rather than governments to bring about change. Hope in our ability to dissect capitalism and isolate its many manifestations to dismantle it. There is indeed an ‘abundance of hope’.

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Dr Donna Chambers is Professor of Critical Cultural Studies, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Lead for the Department of Arts at Northumbria University, Newcastle.

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The Ignorant Art School | Sit in Curriculum #3 | The Otolith Group, Cooper Gallery, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, Dundee, 13 Oct to 16 Dec 2023