How to solve a problem like mainstream market art
Art, I feel, is out of reach of people from certain demographics. Growing up in Croydon, it was seen as something to be left to those of the upper classes, those that can ‘afford’ to enjoy it. The sort of people driving Range Rovers, living in houses worth upwards of 750k; not something for someone like me, living on a council estate and on benefits. However, I was lucky. Very lucky even, to have been exposed to the world of art from a young age. Before my parents split up, my dad would make time to spend with my brothers and I every night before we went to bed. Usual activities included games of ‘guessing the composer’ (we used to have an album full of all the famous pieces of the classical ‘greats’, such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven), or ‘capital cities’, with our dad pointing to each country in turn. On weekends, both parents would take us to museums; The Natural History Museum was a favourite. They enabled us from a young age, to appreciate the world of art in all its forms. Mum, dad, if you’re reading this, I’m forever grateful for you dragging my then 10-year-old self from exhibit to exhibit, even though I would complain endlessly and tell you I hated it.
Unfortunately, not everyone is lucky enough to have someone show them the world of art. I come from an area in which art isn’t relatable to us as people. I can go into The National Portrait Gallery and see these beautifully painted Biblical depictions from 1602… but that’s it. I can’t connect to the art – how could I? The images depict a majority white cast, painted by a White-European artist in a time that ethnic minorities were considered lesser beings. This is only one perception of many. Someone from a different background might look at the same piece of art but not relate for a different reason. However, for me, as a mixed-race person from a working class background, I feel that I can’t relate to the ‘mainstream art market’, events like Frieze. But what I can relate to are people like Banksy. Banksy was the first artist I naturally came across, outside of forced school trips and conventional media coverage. Banksy’s art talks to me on a level that work by artists like Damien Hirst can’t. To an extent, we both share anti-establishment ideologies. His work is designed to be more easily understood by a broad portion of society. However, a lot of mainstream market art appears to require such a high-level of understanding, it excludes the potential audience.
After reading into Banksy, I discovered other street artists like Basquiat and Dran. Both whom, once again, I could relate to due to the nature of their work. From then on, my interest in art grew. Visiting galleries like the Saatchi and Tate Britain, I started looking into artists like Turner and Freud, more ‘conventional’ artists. I mean, Turner is widely regarded as one of the greatest English painters of all time – and I would agree to a certain extent, his work is visually beautiful. But the more interested in art I got, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of representation of ethnic minorities. I need not look further than to the ‘top galleries’ in London to see that.
For me, being half black and half white, it became very apparent that there was an overwhelming lack of ‘black artists’ at the forefront of the art world. I believe the issue is that black boys and girls aren’t told from a young age that they can grow up to be artists. For example, one of my favourite artists, J Cole, has expressed a ‘common feeling’ in the black community. He raps, in his song Chris Tucker, “She think I’m in the NBA, why can’t a N*gga have his MBA?”. This isn’t just there because it rhymes, it’s based on real life observations from real people. Why has a black person in first class have to be a rapper or athlete? It’s unfortunate that assumptions like this are still made today, but it’s the truth of it. It’s not so much the fault of black communities; we produce people who go on to work in all sorts of professions, the same as any other ethnicity. But that’s not put on public display, it’s not pushed through by the media. This, coupled with an outdated education system, doesn’t aid young black artists. In fact I’d argue that the outdated education system in fact hinders creative young black students on a larger scale, but that’s another article in itself.
To combat this issue within the black community, institutions like 1:54 host events such as the African Arts Fair, an alternative to Frieze, set up to give a platform for Africans in the world of art. The name 1:54 comes from the 54 countries inside one continent (Africa). Over the past four years 1:54 has established itself as a voice in the global discussion on contemporary African art, and this year will spotlight the work of over 110 African and African Diaspora artists, working in various mediums and coming from a unique spread of geographical backgrounds comprising of 30 countries. Some would argue that events like this promote segregation, a point I can totally understand. However, in order for a voice that has been suppressed for so long to be heard, it must speak louder than usual. The long term plan for 1:54 is to have a scenario in which a fair focused solely on African Art is not a necessity, because there is fair representation of the community in mainstream art.
Words by Tayler Prince-Fraser
Edited by Daniel Hawksworth