ART News

Black History Month 2021: Proud to Be

To celebrate this year's Black History Month, our guest Art Writer, Margherita Nussio, brings us the latest news about events, exhibitions and public installations that place human stories at the centre of modern speculations about race, identity, and diaspora.

13th October 2021 | Guest Writer: Margherita Nussio
Veronica Ryan with her marble and bronze sculptures in Hackney. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA. Credits here
At the beginning of October 2021, it was revealed, in the borough of Hackney (London), the first set of permanent work to honour the Windrush generation in the UK [1]. The first one, which has been installed in St. Augustine’s Tower, is a series by the artist Veronica Ryan OBE. The marble sculptures represent fruits and vegetables from the Caribbean: Custard Apple (Annonaceae), Breadfruit (Moraceae), and Soursop (Annonaceae). According to the artist’s words “The movement of fruit and vegetables across the globe historically exemplifies the way people have been part of that movement. Many fruits and vegetables have their origins in Asia, and Africa. The perception of origins and belonging to specific places is an extended part of the conversation.” The sculptures will convey “a sense of visibility, connectedness, belonging, and an ownership of history that is not taught in school” (news - Hackney council). A second series will be revealed in June 2022 and will be placed in Hackney Town Hall Square. It will be by the artist Thomas J Price’s and it will be a series of sculptures of people of descent or from the Windrush generations to honour their achievements, sacrifices and their life.

[1] In 1948 the British Nationality Act 1948 gave the right of people born in the United Kingdom or in the colonies to settle in the UK. Between 1948 and 1970 half a million people emigrate to the UK from the Caribbean. Since they had the legal right to move, they didn’t have any documentation. In 2012 officially started the Hostile Environment policy that created a hostile environment, especially for people that entered the UK before 1973. At least 83 people were wrongly detained and deported. Click here to watch a BBC documentary about the topic.

Thomas J Price, Photo: Ollie Adegboye 
When we talk about migrations and diaspora, it’s easier to come up with numbers. Numbers are easier, we don’t immediately associate them with an individual, with a personal history, with love, with pain, with affection, with a smile and with tears. The work by Yinka Shonibare CBEBritish Library” at Tate Modern is exemplary. His installation represents 6,328 books, covered with Dutch wax print fabric with 2,700 names of first or second generations migrants that came to the UK. It’s an interesting mix of well-known individuals and common people. In the same room, there are a couple of tablets from where it’s possible to read about their life, giving a story and an identity to a number. What Yinka Shonibare, Thomas Price and Veronica Ryan are trying to do is to place, once again, humans at the centre of the modern speculation about race, identity, and migrations, in a humanist 4.0 approach.

Yinka Shonibare, "The British Library", Tate Modern, London
The sculptures that have been revealed in Hackney were commissioned in the context of Black History Month. What is the origin of Black History Month and why is it important?

The story of the black history month started in the United States almost a century ago, in 1926 when the historian Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950 son of former slaves, gained a PhD from Harvard University) felt that the role of African-American people was ignored, misrepresented and neglected by scholars. He founded, in 1915 the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and, one year later, he started the publication of the Journal of African American History. The journal gave the opportunity to scholars to challenge, for the first time, the status quo to spread the knowledge of the history of the Black community in the States.

The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History promulgated and created, in 1926 the “Negro History Week” in February, the month of the birthdays of Frederick Douglass ( former slave and national leader of the abolitionist movement) and Abraham Lincoln (who issued, in 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that every slave shall be free). President Gerald Ford, in 1976 officially recognised Black History Month and gave the official start to celebrations. Since 1976 every black history month has had a theme, for 2021 is “Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity”.
Black History Month in the UK

The history of Black History Month in the UK is connected to the events in the US. In fact, when Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a Ghanaian born activist and journalist who was also part of the Greater London Council, moved to the UK from the USA, quickly realised that in the UK, despite the colonialist past and the racial issues, there were no celebrations or recognition of the history of the Black and Caribbean communities. As Special Projects Coordinator of the Ethnic Minorities Unit, he inaugurated Black History Month in October 1987. Similar to the celebrations in the USA, the UK every year has a theme; the theme for 2021 is “Proud to Be”.
The family of Betty Campbell unveil a statue of the educator in Central Square, Cardiff. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA
Black History Month is an essential milestone for the country and for the recognition of the injustices, racism and abuses that are disproportioning affecting the Black community. It is also a month where to celebrate the contribution of the Black and Caribbean communities to the creation of modern Britain. One of the focuses is to decolonise the curriculum in school. In fact, the history of the Black people is (almost) solely focused on the history of slavery, colonialism and post-colonialism and is not addressing properly the contribution, the sacrifices, and the complex history of Africa, the Caribbean’s and of the migrations, contributing to the enforcement of stereotypes and prejudices. It is important, however, to mention that from 2022 it will be mandatory in Wales to teach Black History in schools. The agenda hasn’t been revealed yet but it’s a step in the right direction. In addition, at the end of September was unveiled in Cardiff a bronze monument to honour Betty Campbell, the country’s first black headteacher. Betty Campbell was a pioneer; she taught her students about slavery and black history. Also, she contributed, while working in the Home Office’s race advisory committee, to the creation of Black History month in the UK.

The month of October has a very interesting agenda of events to celebrate the Black and Caribbean communities and descendants in the UK and it is an important date to celebrate those cultures and the history of the people.

Between all the events that are taking place in the UK to celebrate the Black History Month, I would like to suggest a few, beyond the sculptures that have now been installed in Hackney.

Windrush Cymru “Our Voices, Our Stories, Our History
From 2 October to 31 October 2021
St Fagans National Museum of History, Wales

London Black History Month 2021 - Honour, Remember, Inspire
Zari Gallery London.
Click here for more information

Culture Kitchen - Celebrating Black History Month Through Cuisine
29 October 2021
The LevelUP Foundation, Birmingham
Click here for more information

Sonia Boyce ‘Gathering a History of Black Women’- interview
Tate Online
Click here for more information

Claudette Johnson – 'Giving Space to the Presence of a Black Woman”
Tate Online
Click here for more information

Feeding Black: Community, Power & Place
6 July 2021 - 17 July 2022
Museum of London Docklands, London

Beauty & Power - Black History Month Photography
From 1 to 27 October 2021
Brady Arts & Community Centre, London

London Black History Month Special
23 October 2021
Centre Stage.
Click here for more information

"City Of London: Slave Trade Money Trail Tour
30 October 2021
Royal Exchange, London.
Click here for more information

James Barnor: Accra/London – A Retrospective
until 24 October 2021
Serpentine Gallery, London

"No Entry" by Kaleb D'Aguilar.
Even if not in the UK we would like to share that the short movie “No entry” by Kaleb D'Aguilar will be soon presented in London. The short film will be presented the 15th of October at the Jamaica Night at the Royal Cinema in Toronto. It raises awareness of consistent discrimination against the Jamaican diaspora from the perspective of a mother. Click here to watch the trailer.

About the Writer
Margherita Nussio was born and raised in Udine, a small town in the northeast of Italy, where the proximity of Austria and Slovenia creates an interesting middle-European mix.

She studied Art History at La Sapienza University of Rome and life brought her to London, to undertake a Master's degree at SOAS, University of London, in Contemporary Art of Asia and Africa. She is curious, passionate and always wandering around, trying to discover new things about London and the world.