Eddie Chambers’ work Deconstruction of the National Front, on loan from Tate, will be shown as part of the exhibition. Chambers was a founder member of the BLK Art Group in the early 1980s. Destruction of the National Front is a direct response to the appropriation of a national flag by a racist nationalist ideology. In the work Chambers makes use of the disruptive connotations of collage and montage to undo the association of the nation with fascism.
Q and A: Eddie Chambers (Professor, University of Texas, Austin) and Jessica Taylor (Head of Programmes, International Curators Forum)
Jessica Taylor: The title of Sylvia’s exhibition ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ is inspired by Wallace Steven’s poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ which creates multiple perspectives of a bird as it moves through ‘many circles’ or vantagepoints. The exhibition employs this strategy of refusing a singular, centralised viewpoint and through the works of thirteen artists fosters a multicultural, cross-generational dialogue around the notion of ‘de-centering’ as an act of resistance.
Destruction of the National Front depicts the fragmentation of the Union Jack in the form of a swastika, and by extension the fracturing or shredding of the racist and nationalist ideologies of the National Front in 1970’s Great Britain. Today Destruction of the National Front is seen as a seminal work of the Black Arts Movement and a call to protest against nostalgic right-wing politics.
In 1981, a year after completing the work you said Eddie, “The work of the black artist should be seen as having specific positive functions: a tool to assist us in our struggle for our liberation, both at home and abroad, as opposed to simply reflecting the moral bankruptcy of modern times.” (Rasheed Araeen, ‘Eddie Chambers: Destruction of the NF,’ Third Text, Number 5, Winter 1988/89: 45)
In a moment when we are seeing a resurgence of nationalist beliefs and increased backlash to immigration, have your ideas around the capacity of artistic practice to function as a tool for change evolved? How do we continue to resist when change seems too slow?
Eddie Chambers: I still hold true to many of the ideas, arguments and opinions we formulated as young art students all those decades ago. I believe that art practice has the potential to have a profound ability to enable its viewers to think about the world around in perhaps different, perhaps more challenging, ways. Of course, artists should always be free, always be encouraged, to make the art they want to make, but I’m personally committed to art practices that embody certain social narratives.
Jessica Taylor: Destruction of the National Front was made 40 years ago in the West Midlands*– do you have any reflections today on the significance of the work being exhibited in Coventry in an exhibition that is not a retrospective or a historical exhibition, but instead is speaking to the heterogeneity and complexity of the region and the country through the works of artists like Keith and yourself alongside emerging artists beginning their careers now, as you were in 1979-80?
Eddie Chambers: The piece was actually made at Bilston College, a further education college in Wolverhampton, when I was studying A level Art. The work drew from, and responded to, the imagery of the Anti-Nazi League (the dominant activist grouping that opposed the National Front). The Anti-Nazi League was explicit in equating the National Front to Nazism. The Anti-Nazi League’s posters showed a montage of Hitler, the swastika and National Front demonstrators. My piece directly took its cue from such imagery. At the time of the work’s making I had recently been introduced to the powerful work of John Heartfield, and the influence of his work might be apparent.
British culture thrives on racism, bigotry and xenophobia. I was born into a country whose citizenry are in large parts seem wedded to the idea that ‘foreigners’ are a pestilence and that the numbers of ‘foreigner’ or ‘immigrants’ in the country is always in need of ‘controlling’. One of the massive problems with this mindset is that British-born Black people are caught up in it. A black skin is a mark of difference, and not in a good way. These were some of the ideas that informed the making of the work. Coventry voted for the UK to leave the EU, which is hugely significant as Brexit is, I believe, a pronounced distillation of the xenophobia from which the UK suffers. There were apparently numbers of Brexit-voting people of colour - something which must surely be as dumb as is it illogical.
Jessica Taylor: Ska, with its roots in Coventry, has been described as music that sought to address the significant racial tensions in 1980’s Britain – did ska have any impact on your thinking around Destruction of the National Front?
Eddie Chambers: Being in Coventry at the height of the West Midlands ska-influenced bands was important and perhaps fortuitous. I saw the Specials several times, the Beat, the Selecter… these bands played regularly in Coventry and elsewhere in the West Midlands. It was of course their ‘patch’, so it wasn’t hard to pick up on the cultural significance of the music they were making, and the music they were drawing from. The anti-racism group Rock Against Racism was certainly very influential to my thinking and my art practice, as a young student.
(*Whilst there is a discrepancy across sources that site the location of the production of the work as Coventry rather Wolverhampton, it is of great significance that the work was created in the West Midlands when Chambers was still a very young artist. This adds evidence to the importance of supporting and engaging with artists in the region early on in their careers, ensuring we nurture talent coming from the West Midlands).