The title of this excellent show is taken from a work called ‘We Will Be’ (1983) by current Turner Prize nominee Lubaina Himid. It’s a plywood cutout of a woman with arms folded, her skirt variously decorated with images of black cultural and historical figures, scrawled-over pictures of revolting-looking examples of British cuisine and a poem-cum-manifesto. ‘We will be who we want, where we want, with whom we want, in the way that we want, when we want and the time is now and the place is here,’ it reads. The woman’s defiant posture sets the tone for much of the exhibition, a thrilling collection of pieces made by black and diaspora artists working in the UK during the combustible 1980s. You can almost see the sparks flying.
Although anger and frustration were clearly and keenly felt by the artists, their responses to racism and civil unrest are both sensitive and moving. They also act as a powerful witness to the times. ‘This is not fiction, this is fact, I was there,’ says a talking head in ‘The People’s Account’, a documentary by Ceddo Film and Video Workshop focusing on police behaviour towards the black community in Tottenham before, during and after the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot. Just as these artists found solidarity in extended networks, so the works move deftly between the group and the individual – from ‘Twilight City’ (1989), Black Audio Film Collective’s hypnotic, multi-vocal film about the toxic effects of Thatcherism on London, to a devastating mixed-media self-portrait by the late Donald Rodney that traces a bleak lineage to ‘75 million dead black souls’. The personal becomes boldly political.
Even though it’s tied to a particular moment in time, ‘The Place Is Here’ feels both urgent and contemporary. The grim parallels it underlines between the far-seeming ’80s and now make the artists’ voices more compelling than ever.