Feminism by Bernadine Evaristo is one of a series of books commissioned by Tate Publishing and Tate Britain ahead of the rehang of Tate Britain’s collection in 2023. The objective of the series is to invite “some of the most exciting contemporary voices writing today to explore the national collection of British art in their own way, and reconnect art to our lives today.”
As a writer and academic Evaristo notes that the primarily visual experience of art galleries has always thrilled and stimulated her as a person who is normally “focussing intently on the tiny black print that runs across my computer screen.”
She notes however the paucity of opportunity to “experience the richness of Black art” and proposes in the current publication to focus on women and non-binary artists of color always less visible as “creators, curators or critics.” Since the early 80s she has joined with like-minded writers and artists to resist the “endemic discrimination” of Britain, the country they call home.
Evaristo describes a number of ground-breaking exhibitions show-casing Black Women Artists held between 1983 and 1985 culminating in The Thin Black Line held at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1985. She notes the psychic connection between these artists and their works and her own preoccupations as a theatre-maker and writer. These artists were not only depicting Black Women—largely absent from “official” art unless depicted in a menial way—but also addressing racism, sexism, child abuse, and slavery.
More attention was given by these artists to rural settings and to sculpture and photography where women had begun to carve more of a niche than in painting. Evaristo notes that many of the artists who showed in The Thin Black Line (1985) “are still out there creating, exhibiting, making their mark” and that the various wings of the “Establishment” can no longer ignore them.
She notes the truism that historically women artists have been under-represented and under-valued and that many women become disillusioned by lack of broader interest and support—financial and other—even if they have managed to go through the same artistic training as their male counterparts.
Turning specifically to her assignment she notes that “a world-class art museum can no longer get away with being overwhelmingly white and male.” She notes some particularly egregious examples from the Tate’s collection of the marginalization, and demeaning depiction of non-white females unfortunately, accurate descriptions of the status quo ante. There are however some counter examples by Black women artists, which she also remarks.
She frankly notes that she may often read into art works the race and gender of the artists, and its important to not over think or over-politicize everything which presents an obstacle to pure enjoyment of an artwork. However, “It has to be said that my taste in art transcends my political concerns, but my political concerns are more important than my personal tastes.”
She acknowledges however that taste in art also eclectic “And who wouldn’t want to give the super-sexy David’s buns a good squeeze c/o Michelangelo.”
She notes that “critics like to stick the identity label on brown art, brown culture but this is only because it stands out from the majority in Britain. We can stick the ethnographic identity label on any artist and justify it.”
Perhaps her views are best expressed in her final remark that “until we are all included we are all impoverished.”
As with some other publications in the series the title (Feminism) seems not entirely apt and may not attract the broader audience who would benefit from Evaristo’s observations.