Eddie Chambers is an art historian and critic and the David Bruton Jr. Centennial Professor in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. He earned his bachelor’s degree in fine art from Sunderland Polytechnic in 1983 and was subsequently awarded a PhD in art history from Goldsmiths College, University of London, in 1998. His dissertation was titled “Black Visual Art Activity in England between 1981–1986: Press and Public Responses.” Chambers was a practicing fine artist for nearly a decade. His best-known work, Destruction of the National Front (1979–80), is in the collection of Tate Britain. In the early 1990s, he shifted his focus to curating, staging the groundbreaking exhibition “Frank Bowling: Bowling on Through the Century” in 1996, among other shows. He is the author of numerous articles, essays, and the following books: Run Through the Jungle (Institute of International Visual Arts, 1999), Things Done Change: The Cultural Politics of Recent Black Artists in Britain (Rodopi Editions, 2011), Black Artists in British Art: A History Since the 1950s (I. B. Tauris, 2014), Roots & Culture: Cultural Politics in the Making of Black Britain (I. B. Tauris, 2016), and World Is Africa: Writings on Diaspora Art (Bloomsbury, 2021). He edited the Routledge Companion to African American Art History (Routledge, 2019), and is currently the editor-in-chief of Art Journal.
I spoke with Chambers on May 3, 2022, about his career, the shift some Black artists made in the 1960s from figurative to abstract art, Frank Bowling’s changing reputation over the years, and barriers to increasing representation for underrecognized communities in the art world.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you become interested in art? And how did your career progress?
I became interested in art when I was in school. I enjoyed it so much I studied it after I left the UK equivalent of high school. So that eventually led me on a path to art school.
Between 1983 and the early 1990s, I was very much a practicing artist. From there, I moved into exhibition organizing and curating on more of a full-time, committed basis. I did my PhD, then focused my research on the work of artists of color in the UK. But there was overlap between those three periods.
What prompted you to change your role in the art world?
I’m not sure if it was a case of inspiration or searching, but it was very much a case of needing to do things myself. For artists of color, there’s a history of them having to be their own researchers, their own art critics, their own art historians. That was my experience.
When I was at art school, information on Black artists in Britain was nonexistent. This reflects, to some extent, the way in which the art world in Britain didn’t think Black artists existed. It sounds crazy to say in such bold terms, but the reality is that there were waves of British art during which works of different artists of color went unrecognized or underrecognized.
How do you compare a lack of Black representation to women not being recognized?
Well, I think there are strong similarities. I often teach Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists” (1971), a compelling text for the way it describes the factors that led to women’s absence or erasure from art history. It brings up the ways in which the art world is a patriarchal construct in many respects, but it’s not just women artists who are caught up in that patriarchy. I think it affects a wide range of artists, including artists of color and, perhaps most notably, women artists of color.
If art exists with a prefix, it is a problem. White male artists tend to be able to make their work without a recourse to a prefix. But as empowering as notions of “feminist art” or “women’s art” or “art by Black artists” or by “artists or color” may be, they all carry the dreaded prefix that tends to other them or put them in boxes.
Yes, absolutely! We tend to see certain people put in boxes; others, because of their social status, are able to sidestep the problems of being put into boxes.
What do you think went through Frank Bowling’s mind when he didn’t choose any Black women artists to be part of “5+1”? Why do you think he didn’t choose any women artists of color?
This might be something for him to speak on, but I think it’s a valid question, because it has an application to a wide range of other exhibitions. It is only relatively recently that the art world has come round to thinking an exhibition looks “unbalanced” because there are not enough women, or there are not enough artists of color, or they are not enough women artists of color.
I’m not necessarily attributing these things to “5+1.” But certainly throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and into the ’80s, it was deemed to be perfectly acceptable for certain exhibitions to be male only, or certain exhibitions to be white males only. If we were to time travel and go back 30 years or so, I think we’d be entering an art world that largely was not thinking about the ways in which it constructed exhibitions around white male artists. It was almost like a standard approach to curating.
Especially if we look at group exhibitions now, then we look at this issue of representation. I’m not saying that we’ve moved into a golden era where things are as they should be, but there’s no question that equitable representation in galleries is now more of an acknowledged issue than it has been in previous decades.
It’s something that needs to be talked about. How people are represented, and how the artwork itself is being represented, is very important.
How does the shifting representation for Black artists in museums and galleries in the late ’60s and ’70s differ from today? I’m thinking again about “5+1”; or “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston,” a 1970 exhibition at MFA Boston; or Barbara Rose’s 1970 essay “Black Art in America”?
It is true to an extent that representation was always an issue. But having said that, exclusion was perhaps even more key. If we were to undertake certain kinds of research, we might find that certain artists have been complaining or agitating about these issues for the last hundred years. There’s a strong history of people protesting their exclusion. The ’60s in particular was a time in which artists of color in New York and other such cities that were home to major art institutions started to question the exclusionary makeup of exhibitions and collections.
People have been asking questions of the art world for a long time. However, it’s certainly true that only recently have greater spaces opened for artists of color, though there have been many false dawns over the past several decades.
I think about having a voice and a platform to talk about these things and having people hear you. Maybe people have been talking about it before, but now they’re getting a platform to say something, and people actually listen to what they’re saying.
Yeah, absolutely. In many respects in the post–George Floyd moment, if I can call it that, we’ve seen the culture or the expression of Black Lives Matter filtering into other zones, into different parts of public life: museums and art galleries are engaged in an active relationship with the movement’s ideas to varying degrees, though some gestures look largely performative rather than substantive.
And the interrogation of representation has intensified and grown evermore frequent. Of course, we might ask questions about the extent to which the art world and the museum sector has responded to these questions, because there are people who think the art world’s response is inadequate and that it is trying to sidestep the issues.
Do you remember when you first learned about Frank Bowling’s work? What were your impressions of it? How did you feel when you first met Frank Bowling?
The first time I heard of Frank Bowling was in 1982. I was working with a group of young artists, mainly art students. We were in different art schools in the UK. We formed a kind of group, organizing exhibitions at galleries all around the country. We organized a symposium called the First National Black Art Convention. I think it took place in October of 1982 in Wolverhampton, which is my hometown in the West Midlands. We invited as many artists as we could identify to come to the symposium in Wolverhampton to enter into a dialogue. Frank Bowling was one of the people who came. It was astonishing because even then in the early ’80s Frank Bowling had legendary status. He was not a struggling artist who nobody had ever heard of. By that time, he had very much established himself as a major artist, not only in the UK, but also in the United States.
This was the first time I met him and engaged with him. I was intrigued about his embrace of abstraction: nonfigurative practices or nonfigurative aesthetics were central or had become central to his ways of making art. This was particularly intriguing to an artist like me—in fact, to many of us in the group—because our practices very much centered on explicit social narratives. We had a very strong idea that our work should have a pronounced figurative element, in terms of its engagement or its gestures to engage people. We often used quite a lot of texts in our work: the addition of text to image, or just text, served to amplify the work’s messages. To meet an artist like Frank Bowling, who was very successful in so many respects but whose work was in many ways the antithesis of our own, was an interesting point of engagement for us.
What do you think made Bowling switch from representational composition to more nonrepresentational composition in his art?
Again, this is a question for him, but I think I can historically contextualize his shift in working. From the mid-20th century onward, there were an increasing number of artists who were frustrated by the inadequacies of figurative work. At that time—and we could think especially of the United States in the mid-20th century, although similar kinds of images appeared in Europe too—the visual culture of the country is one that brought down Black people. We just need to think of the stereotypes of African Americans eating watermelons that proliferated so widely in postcards, advertising, and popular American culture, and other really dreadful racist caricatures that circulated. The dominant culture’s widespread racism generated no end of negative images of African American people.
We can look at figurative practices by African American artists as providing an alternative visual culture to the dominant culture’s racism. But Black artists have, for many decades, found themselves running into difficulties on account of the limited ways in which the image of the Black person is read. When Black people are a work’s subject matter, it is invariably read in limited terms. For example, if we consider a painting of a Black man, many white people are not seeing a painting of a man; they are seeing an image of a Black man. Whereas if they see a painting of a white man, they’re seeing a painting of a man. The man’s black skin becomes the determining factor in how the painting is read. There’s a formidable challenge to the ways in which Black figurative work is read. We can think things are changing, or things have changed, in recent times, and that the Black image is now read as more expansive, more opened up in some ways, more resistant to being overly racialized. But, having said that, we’re living in a society in which race is identified only in certain places, and one of those places has art historically been in figurative paintings of Black people. Race is still a dominant prism for reading works by many artists of color.
Some Black artists looked at figurative painting as being part of the problem rather than a means of simply advancing their art practice. We can almost think about this happening from Norman Lewis onward. They searched for different kinds of languages, different ways of making, that might move away from an overwhelmingly constrained reading of the “Black” image. These ideas of circumventing or challenging the limitations of figurative painting informed the work of Black abstract painters. People turned to abstraction because it offered a whole new language of painting that promised to sidestep the limitations of figuration. It’s fascinating to consider Bowling as being part of this abandonment of figuration in preference to a concerted embrace of abstraction.
Do you agree with Frank Bowling when he says, “It’s not enough to say, ‘Black is beautiful’?1 Do Black artists always need to think about aesthetics and politics when creating an artwork?
That quote by Bowling is hugely important because, in some respects, we can think it points to the ways in which “Black is beautiful” is rhetorical but is meant to be affirmative.
In the ’60s and the ’70s, it may have been a very empowering sentiment, especially, as I mentioned earlier, when Black people were faced with an abundance of negative caricatures, all of society’s negative associations with being Black. The closer one is to whiteness, the more one is perceived as being intelligent and beautiful. In that situation, saying “Black is beautiful” means something. In that sense, to say “Black is beautiful,” it’s almost a revolutionary statement.
It can be argued, as Bowling appears to be doing, that just saying “Back is beautiful” and expecting it to lead somewhere isn’t enough. It requires more depth or more probing or putting more nuance on it. We can understand Bowling’s reticence about a superficial “Black is beautiful” as indicating the ways in which, in not much time, it ended up being a rhetorical statement that was no longer fit for any kind of purpose.
For example, think about the challenges people are facing in terms of housing. The ways in which they systematically face a monumental history of not being able to access decent housing. We think about schools, we think about the children attending these schools that are very poorly resourced and not in the best of shape. I mean, “Black is beautiful” will not carry us very far in relation to many of the challenges, such as poor housing and poor education, that many people of color face. This view that we need more than rhetoric is very important.
In the case of Bowling, I think he may have been looking at art practices that foregrounded the Black figure but did so in ways that may not have been as forward-thinking as they first appeared. There are certain images that might check certain boxes in terms of Black pride and Black affirmation, but which ultimately might operate on a superficial level. Again, how could Black artists escape the limitations of figuration and images that might operate on the level of the superficial? I think these are some of the key questions Bowling was asking.
Is “Black art” a useful category for artists or curators, or for the public? If you think it exists, how would you define “Black art” versus art by Black people?
I think we need to be very careful around a term such as “Black art” because I think it only applies to specific forms of art practices in which explicit, socially grounded Black subjectivity is centered.
I don’t tend to be comfortable with this idea that Black art is what the wider body of Black artists make. I think it’s a problematic application of the term and it’s not helpful. Black Art—the upper case A is important—has a history of being made by a relatively small number of Black artists. Not every Black artist who makes art makes art that fits within this kind of rubric of Black Art.
The casual use of the term “Black art” as a reference to all art by Black artists is also problematic because—and I’m not saying Black and white are binary—unless we become comfortable with a term such as “white art” as a reference to all art made by white artists, then “Black art” can’t categorize all artists of color. If you went into a bookshop and asked if they had any books about white art, they might be a bit puzzled as to what exactly you were looking for. But, of course, you could go to that same bookshop and ask if they had anything on Black art, and they would say, “Oh, yeah, we have...”
The ways in which the dominant culture is able to exist without a racial prefix is a problem. I feel this is also a problem in universities. And it is certainly a problem in art.
What do you make of Bowling’s changing reputation in recent years? Does his success surprise you in any way?
I don’t think that’s an easy question to answer because in some respects the history of Black artists in Britain (and we could possibly extrapolate this to different parts of the world, including the US) is a history in which recognition tends to come to them quite late. In many instances, it only comes when an artist has died.
One could think of some of Bowling’s contemporaries, people like Ronald Moody and Aubrey Williams. These are artists whose success or whose wider appreciation came years after they passed. There are many artists to whom recognition comes too late for them to enjoy it. I think this thing about only recognizing certain artists when they’ve died is a feature of the art world! One thing I should say about Bowling’s reputation and exposure of his work is that I think it’s great that he’s around to appreciate it! He’s around to benefit from the increased admiration for his work.
Do you think Bowling’s recognition before his death could be part of a broader shift toward equality of representation?
In the case of Frank Bowling, we can celebrate and be guardedly optimistic about his recognition. I think it was “Frank Bowling: Mappa Mundi”—curated by Okwui Enwezor at Haus der Kunst from June 23, 2017, to January 7, 2018—that marked a turning point in Bowling’s profile.
We have to be mindful of how we might read the reception of Black artists by the art world. We can look at it as more of a gesture rather than having active substance. I’m not saying that all exposure is just a gesture. But we have every right to ask ourselves the extent to which something is a mere gesture, or if the art world is performing change versus the extent to which these changes are genuine.
One thing I think it’s important for us to think about relating to the question you asked is: If the people who staff the art world are overwhelmingly of one social profile, to what extent can we have genuine change?
Not until other races are incorporated.
That is a formidable challenge. A greater challenge may be how to make art galleries and museums spaces in which more and more people of different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds are more and more comfortable.
So, when more and more Black people say to themselves, “Well, I’ve got an hour or two free, I’m going to wander into the local museum to have a look at some works in its galleries,” or, “I’m going to visit an art gallery because it’s a good way to spend a couple of hours,” that’s when we may know the art world is making progress. Until we have more and more people comfortable with claiming museums and galleries as spaces in which they are comfortable, I think changes in the art world will continue to be piecemeal.
These are complicated issues, of course; we may almost think that until more and more communities of color are in better-paid employment, they might not feel they have leisure time to spend in art galleries and museums. In some ways, appreciation of art and culture tends to grow when people are better financially compensated. Think about the number of people who need to be holding down two jobs to make ends meet. The idea that they might have a couple of hours to visit a museum is fanciful because, if they’re not at work, they’re either going to be resting or looking after family, or they’re going to be doing things that they already find fun or enjoyable. Chances are galleries and museums are not among the pursuits that people working themselves to exhaustion are going to enjoy.
There are very real challenges in breaking down the elitism of museums and galleries. Just as there are challenges in the work of Black artists gaining ever-greater levels of exposure and appreciation. I believe in many respects that integrated programming is the way forward, just as I believe that art history itself needs to be increasingly reflective of all sorts of art histories.
1 Frank Bowling, “It’s Not Enough to Say ‘Black Is Beautiful.’” ARTnews, April 1971.
Karolina DeResende graduated from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2022 with a biology major and art history minor. She is currently working at UMass Boston as a teaching assistant in the Biology department and hopes to attend dental school in the future. Art history is her passion outside of science.