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Sonia Boyce, artist

Black Artists and Modernism
Sonia Boyce and susan lok

Black Artists and Modernism

Prof Sonia Boyce is leading a research project exploring the fundamental contribution of black British artists to modern art history. Dr susan pui san lok is also an investigator on the project. 

Black Artists and Modernism

Artists of African and Asian descent have been making art in the UK at least since the early twentieth century. However, despite this longstanding situation, a problem exists where art criticism continues to serve the art-works of these artists inadequately. A peculiar kind of eclipsing has taken place where instead of considering and talking directly about the work, the discussions have emphasised the ethnicity of the artist, and the general problematics of race and identity politics within the art establishment, thus deflecting attention away from how these art-works relate to or have influenced the story of twentieth century art.

Coalesced under the term 'Black-British', the research will aim to elucidate a critical perspective on the complexities of trying to draw essentialist conclusions about the nature of a practice on the basis of national origin or diasporic affiliation.

Black Artists and Modernism, BAM for short, is a 3-year research programme that will investigate the often-understated connections as well as points of conflict between Black-British artists' practice and the art-works' relationship to modernism. Here, the research sees modernism as an unfinished project that is extended in postmodernism, and it will look at what Stuart Hall calls the "conjuncture" of generations of Black-British artists that were 'for' and 'against' modernist dictates.

By focusing our attention on art-works held in major public collections as well as key exhibitions, the research is designed to reach a wide audience from students and academics to a more general audience for the arts.


Through open discussions involving academics, artists, curators, cultural critics and students the BAM Study Days will focus on signature art-works held in public collections.

We shall interrogate how these art-works are framed within the museum context and develop close readings of the art-works and how they relate to modernism and contemporary art.


Through partnerships with public museums, new displays will be devised as a way to re-think the connection between the art-work and the story of modernism.


Symposia on exhibition histories and museological practices will be organised to look at significant temporary exhibitions from the 1960s to the early 2000s.

The symposia will ask how public collections have positioned the art-works of Black-British artists within their collections, and will aim to historically and aesthetically contextualise these art practices in relation to a globalised sense of contemporary art.


At the end of the project, the Blackness of Modernism book will draw together the interrelated strands of the research and the re-appraisals that have taken place as a consequence of the open discussions.

The book will have a series of ‘In Focus’ case studies on signature art-works, key exhibitions and classifications of art-works in public collections.

It will create a set of timelines that illustrate art-works, highlight significant exhibitions and chronicle the breadth of art-works held in public collections across the UK.


In order to chronicle what art-works are housed in which public collections BAM will create a database as a national audit – a geographical map of which art-works can be found where.

This database will be accessible on the BAM website, and will form part of the Chronologies section in the Blackness of Modernism book.


The Documentary Strand is twofold: it will record the unfolding research process by documenting Study Days and Symposia, and also develop a series of documentaries that will be made for a variety of public media platforms including public broadcasting and the BAM website.


Interviews will be conducted with artists, curators and cultural critics to provide personal testimonies on formative influences, as well as detailed discussions on specific works. These interviews will be published on the BAM website, or will be used as references towards written papers.


The BAM website will house essays, interviews, short documentary films, the national audit online database, plus special features as the research unfolds.

Black Artists and Modernism covered by the Indipendent - see article here.