The Black-Art Gallery: How small space in Finsbury Park proved seminal in bringing diversity to UK art scene
PUBLISHED: 14:23 12 November 2019 | UPDATED: 16:40 12 November 2019
You wouldn’t know it walking past today, but in the early 1980s 225 Seven Sisters Road was the centre of the UK’s emerging Black-Art scene.
The small space is now part of the Finsbury Park Trust, but back then it was the home of The Black-Art Gallery, which proved to be seminal in bringing diversity to the UK art world.
It was the brainchild of the Organisation for Black Art Advancement and Leisure Activities (OBAALA), led by former Black Panther, artist and poet Shakka Dedi, along with Menelik Shabazz, Beverly Francis, Michael Jessumba, Ken Yahw McCalla and Adziko Simba. Its aim was to showcase the work of artists who were proud of their African ancestry.
You'd be hard pressed to find much about it online, and Shakka has kept a low profile over the years, but the Gazette managed to track him down to tell the story of how his gallery "helped put Black artists on the map".
"It came out of my experience in the Black Panthers and BLF [Black Liberation Front] as a youngster," said Shakka, now 65 and splitting his time between New Cross and Akososmbo, Ghana.
"That work of raising consciousness was part of what we were trying to do.
"I'd gone to art college, and the idea of the gallery was to utilise the art and people's creative expression to allow people from the community to see themselves reflected in an artspace where they could feel relaxed and comfortable.
"There weren't places where people could find it. There was the Commonwealth Institute and the Africa Centre, but they didn't do it exclusively.
"That's fine, but it wasn't what we were doing, which was to create a space where Black artists could show work specifically geared towards the community that may or may not be seen as part of the mainstream."
With the Greater London Council at the time keen to support minority groups, Shakka and his partner Eve-I Kadeena submitted a funding proposal to Islington Council, and in 1982 were given the cash to set up the gallery.
They settled on the location due to its proximity to Finsbury Park Tube station and the Rainbow Theatre, which stood opposite.
The first show, in the autumn of 1983, was Heart in Exile, featuring the work of 22 artists, including Keith Piper and Eddie Chambers. OBAALA's manifesto of Black-Art was included in the brochure.
"I remember City Limits and Timeout were the main two publications and they both came and covered it," said Shakka.
"We had two openings - an African spiritual blessing and then the public opening.
"We had thousands of people coming into this little space, and not just from Islington, from across London and the country. "It continued like that for the next seven or eight years."
Piper and Chambers, along with Marlene Smith and Donald Rodney, had created the BLK Art Group in the West Midlands the previous year and all at some time worked with the gallery.
"We had big names and people who went on to become big names," said Shakka. "Sonia Boyce, Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers - one of the most well respected artists and writers. They all had their first solo exhibitions there.
"It had a tremendous impact because it brought artists that were not being featured into view. The overall effect was to encourage other young artists to get involved and also to inspire members of the Black community and wider afield.
"When I was looking to set up I went to many colleges and people who were interested in doing stuff were always in two minds. They'd say: 'What am I going to do? Where am I going to show it?'.
"Some of those became involved and exhibited later on. Before, people were trying to do things off their own steam, but when we got funding it was totally different and we could do all the things we wanted to do. It really put Black artists on the map."
The gallery, which the new Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn would drop in on, also hosted a summer art school every year for children, with activities such as tie dye and screen painting, sculpture, music and drama classes.
Monthly poetry readings took place in OBAALA's Poetry Theatre, also based in the gallery, which featured many well known poets. Exhibitions were also supported with discussions and a school programme was led by teacher Kadeena.
From the outset it was in the media spotlight.
"The gallery was getting a lot of attention and it was helpful to those artists," Shakka continued.
"There was a lot of talk about Black-Art because of the gallery and it forced places like Whitechapel and the Hayward to have exhibitions of Black artists' work. I doubt they would have done at the time they did had there not been the publicity from our space and agitation from other artists like Rashead Arean."
It wasn't long before others followed their lead. The People's Gallery launched in Camden, the 198 opened in Brixton and Battersea Arts Centre began showcasing Black artists' work.
Over its 10-year life, Shakka estimates there about 30 exhibitions at the gallery, as well as touring shows.
One, named Generation to Generation, was an interactive installation allowing people to walk through a set of a typical 1950s Black British home into a more contemporary room - from coloured wallpaper and Nat King Cole records to modern furnishings and Bob Marley vinyl.
Alongside New Beacon Books and Paul For Music, Finsbury Park had a strong Black cultural offering, and Shakka says he cannot remember one direct incident of racism.
"I can honestly say we didn't have any," he said. "We could have had broken windows and all that - it was an open door. The work was specific to a particular group but it was there for everyone."
There were, however, accusations the gallery wasn't inclusive of other minority groups.
"Some people felt that because it was a Black gallery it wasn't inclusive of any others [minority groups]," said Shakka. "We didn't have any issues with others but the whole idea was that it was exclusive to artists of African descent, that was our background and we were talking to our people through our art.
"The idea of Black-Art was the concept that the work came out of people's experiences as African people, or British African people.
"The term Black has always had its issues and is used to mean different things. It didn't mean it had to be political, it just had to come from yourself. If you were a Black artist and you want to paint flowers it's fine, but what do you have to say about it? Are we to say Black-Art cannot embrace beauty? Of course not."
Shakka left in 1990 following a falling out with the rest of the team, and the gallery continued for a few more years under Marlene Smith.
In recent years he has been back and forth to Ghana, where he is setting up an art centre.
But he's now settled in New Cross and keen to get back into the arts scene, which he says reminds him of the liveliness of the 1980s.
"People are doing stuff off their own back without funding," he explained. "You see it in drama, music and dance, people are getting into their own spaces.
"Some people think because a few artists have broken through - Chris Ofili, Sokari Douglas Camp Sonia Boyce, Zak Ove and Lubaina Himid - that there isn't a need for this type of space. But it isn't true, and it is not ghettoisation, it is serving community needs.
"Those artists that broke through, their work is essentially Black-Art. It comes out of their experiences, it stands out as something different and that's what makes it so attractive."
The gallery was referenced in Somerset House's recent Get up Stand Up Now exhibition, celebrating 50 years of Black creativity in Britain. But despite its significance - and its success - The Black-Art Gallery has almost been forgotten.
Shakka believes the reason lies in his exit. He had been staying up until 3am each night putting together a book containing work of dozens of artists showcased at the gallery, and it was nearing completion. But after he left, the book was never finished.
"That was the most hurtful thing," he said. "That would have been a statement. It was the legacy."
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