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What's the connection between Keith Piper and Bluecoat?

Renowned British artist Keith Piper’s new solo show presented by Bluecoat and Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) comprises three new large-scale works spanning installation, digital works and drawings that address current anxieties about the impacts of globalisation. It is the most substantial presentation of the artist’s work in nearly two decades and celebrates the longstanding relationship between Piper and Bluecoat. Below, Bluecoat’s Artistic Director Bryan Biggs explores Keith and Bluecoat’s long standing relationship, and how this latest solo exhibition came to be.


 

Last summer at the launch of Bloomberg New Contemporaries, I noted in my speech that it had been 30 years since Bluecoat had last hosted this exhibition of work by graduates from British art schools. As a member then, in 1986, of the selection panel, one of the young artists whose work stood out for me was Keith Piper. His Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was a powerful series of paintings on un-stretched canvas which I had to fight hard to have included in the final selection. This work, along with Lesley Sanderson’s self-portraits challenging racial stereotypes, seemed the most dynamic and pertinent in the show. At Bluecoat, Keith’s paintings were a highlight of New Contemporaries, dominating our main gallery (which is now our foyer area, known as ‘the Hub’).

We had shown Keith’s work the year before in Black Skin Bluecoat, a four-person show that was Bluecoat’s first conscious engagement with the burgeoning ‘black art movement’. Along with Eddie Chambers, Marlene Smith and Donald Rodney, Keith was a founder member of the BLK Art Group, an association of black British art students, mostly based in the West Midlands, between 1980-1984. The group fought to raise the profile of black artists through exhibitions and conferences, a contribution whose significance is only now being recognised in the development of 20th century British art. Back then however, this work was under the radar.

Our exhibition came about as a result of two things: firstly, the persistence of Eddie Chambers, who seemed to be writing to every gallery in the country, including Bluecoat, arguing strongly for his work to be shown. And, secondly, my own enthusiasm for this generation of artists, not long out of art school, whose work I had been noticing - long before the internet made everything easily accessible – in small art magazines and visits to out of the way, grass roots galleries in London and elsewhere. A large exhibition, Into the Open at the Mappin in Sheffield was the first attempt to provide an overview of ‘Contemporary Black Art’, combining artists like Keith and Eddie with an older generation of artists working in Britain.

We still have in the Bluecoat archive my correspondence with Eddie and Keith (his letters were hand written) which provide a fascinating account of how the exhibition came about and was curated. Tom (later Tam) Joseph and Sonia Boyce - whom we also continued to work with on later projects, including her collaborative exhibition Like Love (2010), working with our Blue Room group - made up the quartet. One of the art works Keith included in Black Skin Bluecoat was entitled ‘Trophies of Empire’, a slide-tape sequence interrogating the continuing legacies of British Imperialism in relation to the rise of Thatcherism and the far right, with organisations like the National Front taking to the streets. Before the digital age, slide-tape was a way to present a ‘moving image’/sound work: a carousel of 35mm slides projected, accompanied by an audiotape.

Five or so years later, Keith approached Bluecoat with a proposal to develop the project ‘Trophies of Empire’ through a new piece of work for Liverpool, called ‘Trade Winds’, that would explore the historical relationship between the Transatlantic slave trade and the development of contemporary global capitalism. Recognising that 1992 would be the year of the Columbus Quincetenary – 500 years since the explorer landed in the Americas – we felt this occasion would give sharper focus to Keith’s project, for, as we are reminded by a statue in Liverpool’s Sefton Park, ‘the discoverer of America was the make of Liverpool’. A Columbus counter-programme, ‘Five Hundred Years of Resistance’, was being organised and we aligned our project, which we called Trophies of Empire, to it.

The idea for Trophies developed as we invited other national venues to be involved: Arnolfini in Bristol, like Liverpool a prominent slave port; and on the opposite coast, Hull, with a different relationship to the slave trade, as the constituency of abolitionist MP William Wilberforce. There our partners were Hull Time Based Arts, social history museum Wilberforce House, and municipal gallery, the Ferens.

Keith’s research, focusing on Liverpool and Bristol, revealed the residue of imperial and colonial legacies in a variety of locations, some highly visible, others obscure and unexcavated: “They permeate the very social, physical and economic fabric, manifesting themselves in ways varying from place names, public monuments and buildings, to the presence of whole communities of people.”

Taking our cue from this research, we opened the project out to other artists, the three port cities collaborating on an open commission series. We invited artists to respond to a brief for work that would ‘creatively and innovatively respond to their own personal interpretation of these legacies and events, through artworks that directly and poignantly reflect both the physical and geographical locations of the project, against the backdrop of 1992 with its myriad implications.’

Through curatorial collaboration, a five-month programme followed of interconnected exhibitions, performances, discussions and events in the three cities. Fifteen artists’ commissions were awarded. Merseyside Maritime Museum was the site for Keith’s installation, its quayside location and collection displays especially pertinent to the work’s themes. This was two years before the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery opened there (later becoming the International Slavery Museum), and the work’s presence had a significant impact on a collection that at the time barely acknowledged Liverpool’s slave trade role.

Trophies was hugely important for Bluecoat, offering an alternative to the ‘black art’ group exhibition. In fact, the commissions were open to any artists, and the collaborative framework involving artists, curators and venues, and multiple sites in three cities, opened up new ways of working. It was a model we adopted for the 1997 project Independent Thoughts/Independent Practices, which took the 50th anniversary that year of Indian Independence and the partition of Pakistan as the starting point for a series of artists’ commissions looking at both the specific context of Partition and its legacies, and more broadly at the idea of independence in the face of increasing globalisation.

Keith returned to Bluecoat in 1995 and 1998 for two of FACT’s ‘Video Positive’ festivals, when the organisation was based at Bluecoat. Unearthing the Banker’s Bones marks a welcome return and celebrates the long-term relationship between Keith and Bluecoat, which began three decades ago right at the start of his career. Almost four years ago I invited Keith to think about showing in our new gallery spaces and the idea of a large scale immersive film piece started then. We wanted to contextualise this with related works, reflecting Keith’s approach which involves research, digital ‘sketches’ and, in this case, painting. And also to revisit Keith’s older work.

We were approached by Iniva, the Institute of International Visual Arts, to collaborate on the project.  A leading UK contemporary visual arts organisation that creates exhibitions, publications, digital initiatives, education and research projects, they explore the politics of race and global identities through the visual arts. We had worked with Iniva before and it seemed timely to reconnect.

A massive boost to realising the central film piece in the exhibition was the Arts Council Collection, who announced a fund for new works to be commissioned as part of its 70th anniversary in 2016. We were successful in our bid for one of these commissions, and the funding has enabled Keith to not only complete the film to a high production standard, but to develop it into a beautiful installation.

It’s great to see the show finally in our galleries. There are resonances with Keith’s previous exhibitions here: his interactive digital work Robot Bodies, updated and re-programmed especially for this show, is based on an earlier version shown here in 1998, commissioned by FACT for Revolution98, part of ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Art): Change the World.

The main work in the show, Unearthing the Banker’s Bones, continues the social and political concerns that informed Keith’s practice and characterised his previous Bluecoat exhibitions. Addressing contemporary anxieties about society, race and class through the perspective of a fictional future, this new film inventively uses montage, text, animation and sound to stunning effect. It’s a long way from that slide/tape sequence in 1985! In the final gallery in the show, Keith has created an installation that resembles a painting studio. Here, four large, roughly-finished paintings on un-stretched and un-primed canvas face out onto College Lane, the busy shopping and restaurant street at the back of Bluecoat. These new works reference 18th century history paintings, but I also sense echoes of those Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from 1986.

Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director of Bluecoat


 

Visit our website for more information on the exhibition and to see the exhibition gallery.

The exhibition runs until Jan 22 2017.

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