Cultural theorist Stuart Hall was a significant intellectual force among the visual artists and film-makers of what became known as the British Black Arts Movement (Bam) of the 1980s and early 1990s. That he generously gave his support to their projects rendered him a figure of affection and respect, evident in John Akomfrah and Smoking Dogs’ film The Stuart Hall Project (2013) and their triple-screen installation recently presented at Tate Britain, The Unfinished Conversation (2012). Both works provide insights into Hall’s intellectual trajectory and his incisive analyses of Britain’s loss of imperial and economic power and the changing demographics created by the immigration of previous colonial subjects.
Hall always felt himself to be an outsider, both in his place of departure, Jamaica, and in Britain, where he arrived in 1951 as an Oxford University Rhodes scholar. But perhaps because of this he was a sensitive observer who bridged successive artists’ generations with differing cultural experiences and aspirations. Like most artists and writers from the old colonies who arrived in the 1950s, he expected to be regarded as an equal in the intellectual life of the “mother” country.
For Hall, the political turbulence of the times – anti-colonial independence movements, the ideological polarisation of the cold war, the emergent US civil rights movement – meant engagement with what he was later to call a structuralist-Marxist social and cultural politics, from which he forged a unique platform as an academic and broadcaster.
For black and Asian artists hoping to participate in modernist debates, the situation proved rather more precarious. Although they initially enjoyed a modicum of success in the British art world, by the mid-1960s, with the surge in societal and institutional racism and the Americanisation of British culture, optimism turned to disillusionment as they found themselves excluded from the art system (a history ignored until the exhibition The Other Story, curated by Rasheed Araeen at the Hayward Gallery in 1989.) This sense of isolation led to the formation of the Caribbean Artists Movement (Cam), intellectually grounded to a large extent in Hall’s radical sociopolitical analyses. Cam’s list of participants now reads like a Who’s Who of the most significant writers, poets and artists of the time.
Hall, however, is less identified with Cam than with the British-born diaspora generation who emerged in the early 1980s, for whom this earlier British black and Asian modernism was largely unknown. The dismal fact is that the prevailing establishment view was that modernism was the domain of white men from which the arts of women and ethnic “others” were to be excluded as inferior derivatives.
The consequence of this discrimination – against a background of inner-city race riots likewise rooted in a racially-inscribed social alienation – was the militant politicisation of young black and Asian artists, for whom Hall became a natural ally and mentor. Thus, in the absence of British art world support structures, the new generation, following the initiative of the BLK Art Group, sought to develop their own galleries, magazines, archives and debates. Hall was a seminal influence in this intellectual environment, largely because his post-Marxist or New Left approach to cultural studies enabled us to see how the racialised subject is interpolated into ideological, political and cultural structures of power.