Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic

Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

July 20, 2017
5 min read

Eddie Chambers’ Destruction of the National Front (1979-80)

I was born in 1960 and came of age in Britain at a time when notions of my identity were being heavily contested. What does it mean to come of age in a country where a significant number of its citizens, from Thatcher (who was then leader of the opposition) to street goons, express a deep sense of ambivalence about the value of your presence?

Your very existence is regarded not as a fact of being but as a justification for all sorts of vile anti-immigrant sentiment as well as a justification for violence enacted against black people.

This is the wider context that a number of us were coming of age in and I think the art we made reflected a lot of these issues. Not only the assault on our Britishness but also the ways in which we were looking for substitutes to shore up our identity. The strategy we enacted was one of solidarity.

The continuing existence of apartheid, for example, the violence of the state in terms of police – these are subjects that black artists in the 1980s were taking up.

Look at the work of someone like Tam Joseph. The Freedom of the Carnival screenprint is an extraordinary work, made in the early 1980s, talking about the police numbers at Notting Hill Carnival and the police brutality that flowed from that.

White society had little to no interest in these things, so the artists became commentators for the wider demographic. They were not just artists for themselves. They made art with which they sought to communicate to wider audiences.


The self-organising aspect was always central to what we were doing. As black artists, we had to do things for ourselves. We had to be our own critics, writing about each other’s work, we had to be our own exhibition organisers, our own historians in many respects.

Clearly the wider structures that are there had not been interested in embracing or acknowledging these artists. So how do you respond to that?

What we did was say, well we’re going to do things ourselves. It’s this sense of self-initiating projects that I think much of the activity of the early to mid-1980s rests on.

I have a tape of poetry by Frederick Williams. It was a low-budget thing. He was just making tapes at his gigs, not waiting for a record contract. The DIY aesthetic was very dominant.

I think there was something about the cultural moment of the 1970s that gave rise to the expression of the 1980s, not only in art but in the ways that people related to each other too. You think about the ways in which black people identified in the aftermath of the New Cross fire [when a number of black youngsters were killed in an arson attack on a party, which was initially thought to have been a racist attack]. I’m talking about the Black People’s Day of Action. I’m talking about Johnny Osbourne recording 13 Dead and Nothing Said with Aswad.

These are very particular manifestations of empathy. I very much doubt that the same degree of human empathy would exist at the present time.


By the time we come to the 1990s, something very different begins to emerge. We see the infrastructure of government sort of press-ganged into supporting multiculturalism and this is a fundamental change that takes place.

The language of black people is courted by the state. The language of societal advancement, integration, cultural identity. The state takes over this language.

‘Co-opt’ is probably too judgmental a word – but there is an aspect in this of the co-opting of black British art. The state becomes very willing, or very anxious even, to reach out and draw in the activities of black people and black artists as a motif of its own diversity. But black artists themselves are always playing catch up in a game they can never control.

It’s important to keep in mind how the dominant culture is always enacting strategies for ignoring black artists. Whether it’s bringing in artists from abroad to fulfill its cultural diversity quota. Whether it’s reaching for the work of dead artists to fulfill its diversity quota.

It seems to me that the latest strategy for displacing contemporary black British artists is a kind of fetishisation of the black British artists of the 1980s. The fetishisation of people like me!

Eddie Chambers’ latest book, Roots and Culture: Cultural Politics in the Making of Black Britain, is published by IB Tauris

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced