Overdue Look At Britain's Minority Art

`The Other Story' displays work by Afro-Asian artists in postwar period

`THE Other Story,'' at the Hayward Gallery here, is a display of work by Afro-Asian artists - a minority - in postwar Britain. It is an exhibition with a point. The point is summed by the exhibit's organizer and catalog author, Pakistan-born artist Rashid Araeen, in two questions:

``Why,'' he asks, ``is there no open debate about the absence of non-European artists from the history of modern art?

``If it is not due to racism, how then, do we explain complacency?''

The genesis of this exhibition is itself a comment on the indifference of the prevailing white-male dominated art world in Britain - not to mention the rest of the Western art world - to works by artists from countries such as Pakistan, Guyana, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. It took Mr. Araeen 11 years to put together the show, battling the cold-shouldering of the British Arts Council and the Greater London Council. Finally, in 1986, the arts council reconsidered his proposal and accepted it.

So here is a British exhibition of modern artists who have ethnic origins ``other'' than the British majority - though some of the most potent work, incidentally, is by artists who have not ``come to'' Britain (mainly from Commonwealth countries that were once part of the British Empire), but who are British-born.

The hoped-for debate about them is a difficult one because, while Araeen recognizes the need to separate them from the ``mainstream'' to emphasize their special contribution, he also recognizes that these artists must not be separated at all. Exclusion from the mainstream is exactly the injustice he wants to highlight, because he is certain it has been on racial and not on aesthetic grounds.

So the primary question is aesthetic. This is a remarkable and refreshing exhibition that does question the status quo - the hierarchy of who's who (and who's greatest) in the story of modern art. And it does so at least partly because of the ``special'' background of the artists.

In the case of some of the artists, being black is the root and branch of their art. There is some rigorously political art included: Eddie Chambers from Wolverhampton and Keith Piper from Birmingham, through mixed-media, confrontational, posterish, graffiti-ish art, fiercely throw the nature of British racism in the public face.

Three (of only four) women artists in the exhibition make the bitterest art about racism: Lubaina Himid, through a harsh, knowing wit, ridicules pink men, and also throws brickbats at some of the heroes of modern art, like Picasso. Sonya Boyce, combining exotic decorativeness with realistic portraiture, looks with a kind of passionate dispassion at the fact of being a black woman in Britain today. And Mona Hatoum, a Palestinian born in Beirut, bleakly and dramatically highlights exile and dispossession by performance art documented on video and in photographs. By subjecting herself to horrors, she makes victimization starkly shocking.

The inherently protesting nature of ``modern art,'' its in-built rebelliousness against the norm, can obviously have particular appeal to people dominated or in a minority - or even simply trying to make a name in a foreign country. Some of the artists shown have taken to modern art with a hungry eagerness that contrasts surprisingly, in Britain at least, with white traditionalist indifference on the one hand or, on the other, overfamiliarity (after all, European and American ``modern art'' has been around a long time now).

Aubrey Williams (born in 1926 in Guyana) is one of the older artists shown. He first found himself as an artist through the impact of the Indian tribe Warrau, in Guyana's northwest jungle. Their rituals and artifacts left an indelible impression on him, which has remained an essence in his art. But after coming to Britain in 1952, he was knocked sideways by American abstract expressionism: ``Pollock was everything. Pollock was our god! All those artists - Kline, Newman, Rothko, de Kooning! They were all great! But for me the most important was Gorky. He fitted in some way with my own perception ... informed by the pre-Columbian Indian iconography ....'' The scale, the visual language of his paintings, the fascinating tension in them between unfocused color and a spiky linearity, between ancient symbolism and Western abstraction (simplistically, it is like a meeting between Gorky and a pre-Columbian Indian) more than illustrates the art value of culture clash. And it is at least odd that Williams is not represented in the major national collection of British and modern art at the Tate Gallery.

It would, however, be quite misleading to suggest that many of the artists included in ``The Other Story'' have suffered from total neglect. Williams certainly hasn't, and the biographies in the catalog indicate a measure of recognition, of exhibition and collection, for every artist shown. Williams -and Iqbal Geoffrey and Francis Newton Souza - have been given a mention in at least one anthology of modern art. But many of the artists here have had too little written about them not to suggest that the thesis of the exhibition is basically correct.

Many of the artists are not overtly concerned with race at all in their art. David Medalla, born in Manila - who first made a name in London in the 1960s for his ``bubble machines'' and as director of ``Signals,'' an art gallery devoted to kinetic art - has constructed a giant foam-billowing bubble machine that somehow grabs the attention. It also fills the air with the clean aroma of laundromat detergent. The sculptures of Avtarjeet Dhanjal - an intriguing amalgam of little wax lights and hunks of roughly hewn and precisely carved slate - constitute an individual vision. From a poor peasant family in the Punjab, Dhanjal successfully preserves a feeling for the natural while acknowledging the world of modern technology. The technological, however, is seen as subservient.

Like many of the other artists in ``The Other Story,'' Dhanjal has encountered difficulties because of his race. At least he wasn't asked by an art dealer, as another artist from India was, if he ``could paint elephants and tigers?''

``The Other Story'' show is at the Hayward Gallery through February. It then travels north to Wolverhampton (March 10 to April 22) and Manchester (May 5 to June 10).)

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