In contemporary art and design, context is everything. Where the medium and the moment come together forms a powerful and resonant statement.
So here we are – the context is 2011 where Obama, the most powerful man on Earth, is of African origin. Barriers are being broken down across all market sectors and territories. And there is a shift of economic power from the western world to the emerging markets of Asia, Latin-America and Africa, where over 100 domestic companies boast revenues greater than $1billion.
It’s all part of an African renaissance that has been taking place for several years. A renaissance that’s evident in the media, with the arrival of high quality publications like Arise magazine; online environments such as the African Digital Artists Network; and new African cinema as evidenced in Wanuri Kahui’s futuristic sci-fi movie, Pumzi. All are united by a desire to portray a dynamic, progressive image of The Motherland.
From a UK design perspective we have seen new initiatives arrive, primarily in the form of the African and African-Caribbean Design Diaspora (AACDD). A three-year programme, initiated by the British European Design Group (BEDG), its aim is to promote the creative skills of ethnic minorities of African and African-Caribbean heritage.
It is in part a response to statistics which show that minority ethnic groups are significantly under-represented in the art and design scene in the UK. In fact, Design Council research in 2010 revealed that just 7% of designers are from a minority ethnic background.
So the staging of the Royal College of Art’s recent Black exhibition, a collaboration between the AACDD and the RCA which celebrated the art and design of the college’s African and African Caribbean alumni, could be seen as particularly timely.
It was an opportunity to acknowledge talented artists and designers that may be marginalised and bring them to public attention. But while I applaud the intention, after viewing the show my thoughts soon turned to the issue of ‘presentation’ rather than ‘under-representation’.
The work was eclectic and of a standard you would expect from the RCA, but many of its more renowned black alumni, such as Chris Ofili and David Adjaye, were missing. Their absence was felt. But even if they were included, the way the exhibition was presented – it looked like it had been put together in a short space of time with limited resources, plus the fact it was only on for a week – left me feeling dismayed.
When asked in an interview with The Guardian as to what advice he has for aspiring black artists, Frank Bowling – now in his 70s and the first black artist to be elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 2005, and whose work featured in the RCA show – says, “Go to the museums and make art that can measure up to the museums. Make art better than anything you’ve ever seen before.”
And while the statistics may suggest otherwise, my own personal experience is that the creative industry has always been a relatively level playing field – where ‘race’ is overtaken by ‘revenue’ every time. If you have the creative talent and commercially exploitable skills, then colour doesn’t come into it.
However, the problem is getting your foot in the door to showcase your skills in the first place. In a world where ‘who you know’ can make a world of difference, that’s not so easy if you don’t know anyone in the industry. And this is where the issue of ‘under-representation’ is a major problem.
For me, the acknowledgement of and addressing of history is also key. You only need one light to shine a path for others to follow.
And we, in the African and African-Caribbean community have to play our part; by understanding our own history and ensuring the stories are told. By holding open the door for others to come in and recognising those who have made in-roads in the industry, but have not had the acknowledgement they deserve.
Only recently did I discover the existence of two African American advertising pioneers: Georg Olden and Archie Boston. As a VP senior art director of McCann-Erickson in New York, Olden was one of the first African-American executives in a major advertising firm. One of the original ‘Mad Men’ he was a leading artist and graphic designer and won numerous major advertising awards and recognized by AIGA.
Although many have forgotten his name, he developed many of the graphical techniques that became standard in the TV and advertising industries. He not only won several Clio Awards, but also designed the actual Clio statuette and is cited as having been involved in the design of the the famous CBS logo.
Another design pioneer, Archie Boston, then emulated Olden’s success. A nationally recognised art director, designer, author and educator, who in 2007, was the first African American to receive the prestigious AIGA Fellows Award from AIGA Los Angeles.
Boston comes from a time often referred to as the Golden Age of advertising. In the sixties he rolled with many of the biggest players such as Saul Bass and Louis Danziger, both design legends who personally did much to champion the inclusion of African-American graphic designers in their practices.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Boston about the issues faced by his generation and what he felt were the issues facing black designers today. “The challenges were much greater for us then, than they are now,” he recalls. “There was a time when I worked for a whole year on a project and never saw the client because the firm were worried about them realising the work was being done by an African-American.”
But now, Boston suggests, “the biggest challenge is motivation, in spite of all the problems that exist in society, to be strongly motivated enough to say, ‘I know I can do it and I’m going to work very hard to do it’. There are so many distractions,” he continues. “And now with the challenges of unemployment – there just aren’t as many jobs as there used to be – the profession is changing and you have to be adaptable to change with it.”
Boston’s words resonate with me because I can see how easily lack of motivation, plus lack of opportunity, plus lack of connections can all add up to suggest why there is a lack of ethnic minorities in the industry.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to highlight the talents of a particular group or community: they would be included naturally as part of a global show of talent. But it is not an ideal world. Sure, we have role models. But they never seem to be held up quite high enough, or long enough, for all to see.
– Jon Daniel.