Exhibitions in most galleries inevitably tend to reflect the tastes and interests of the owner, or director or whoever else runs the place. Brixton Art Gallery, of course, was different. Run by a collective of artists, there was no single guiding hand to promote a particular artistic style or agenda. So, along with all the other matters concerned with running the Gallery, when it came to selecting the exhibition programme there were regular open meetings where anyone could turn up to suggest a show or theme, or recommend an artist or group of artists. There would be discussions and debates about the merits of the proposal – and some would be voted out – but if it was accepted then the person who’d made the suggestion was given full responsibility to make it happen.
The danger of using this method to select shows was that it might encourage the sort of compromises that would simply result in support for bland art of the lowest common denominator. But that certainly didn’t happen at Brixton. Instead, there was a sufficient number of highly motivated artists who all held strong opinions about what kind of art they wanted to see in the Gallery. And such was the mutual respect amongst the artists that the default position was to offer an interesting exhibition support and encouragement, rather than criticism and rejection.
It produced an exciting and eclectic series of shows that would never have come about had the Gallery had a single person with a single viewpoint making all the decisions. These ranged from the three-person shows, where each artist was given an arch to fill, through to the annual members Exhibition when work from nearly two hundred artists filled the space.
There were shows where the medium was the theme, like Seeing Diversity (photography, curated by Tony Strange); Last Requests (film and video, curated by Carole Enahoro); Making and Meaning (textiles, curated by Teri Bullen), and shows where particular groups of artists came together and were given a forum to express a shared aesthetic. Some of these groups emerged from within the Collective, like the Gay and Lesbian Artists Group; the Womens Work Group and Mirror Reflecting Darkly (the Black Women Artists Group). Others were invited into the gallery and given free reign, like the Latin American Artists Group; Creation for Liberation and Bigos, the Polish Artists group.
And some shows were the specific curatorial vision of one artist, like Clay Wood and Metal (Jan Zalud); the 1984 Show (Kevin O’Connor); Third World Within (Rasheed Araeen) and Roadworks (Stefan Szczelkun).
As a registered charity, the Collective had no formal political stance on any matter but in the best traditions of modernism, most of the artists were more than ready to question the establishment viewpoint on anything. This gave rise to a general bohemianism sometimes veering into a vague kind of benign anarchism, celebrated, amongst others, by the punk graphic art in Jamie Reed’s Leaving the 20th Century exhibition and the Copyart Collective’s show, Vive La Resistance.
Very nearly a thousand artists showed work in the fifty exhibitions staged in the Gallery during the two-and-a-half years of my involvement and I suppose that one is entitled to ask what the art was like – was any of it any good? The motives behind the exhibitions may have been noble and the artists dedicated and decent people – but what about the art? Well, three of the thousand went on to be shortlisted for the Turner Prize. And if you read any of the histories about the key figures in the Black Art movement that emerged in the ’80s then you’ll discover that most of them showed at least once at the Brixton Art Gallery. I’ve seen work by artists who showed at Brixton in the Tate, Hayward, RA, ICA, Serpentine, Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Metropolitan in New York.
An exhibition a couple of years ago at the Whitechapel Art Gallery boldly promoted itself as the first to show work from so-called ‘outsider’ artists alongside their mainstream contemporaries. But at least a couple of these ‘outsiders’ showed in regular shows at Brixton and were treated neither as insiders or outsiders but just as artists, with a vision as valid as anybody else.
A few months after Brixton Art Gallery closed the doors for the last time in Atlantic Road in March 1988, Damian Hirst organised the famous Freeze exhibition in Docklands. It’s hard to think of two more distinct generations of artists than those of the modernists of the Brixton Artists Collective and the postmodernists of the Young British Artists (the YBA’s).
Interestingly, both sets of artists were keen on running their own exhibition spaces (Hirst, at least initially). Fot the Collective, the aim was to use the Gallery as a forum for as many artists as possible to promote their ideas. In the broadest sense to get people to look at the world in a different way; to introduce them to new ideas; to allow diffrerent, marginalised groups to have a voice; to campaign, to complain, to make a spectacle, to have some fun and change the world. For Hirst, the exhibition seemed to be purely a route to self-promotion, to catch the eye of the establishment and, instead of poking it, give it a good wink – and audition (successfully) for the role of court jester. That the hero of the YBA’s was Charles Saatchi, an ad man who used his skills in manipulating visual images to such devastating effect when chief propagandist for Mrs Thatcher, would have been funny if it wasn’t so sad.
Ultimately, artists can only ever create an art that reflects the times in which they live, so perhaps one shouldn’t be too critical of the YBA’s. And Brixton in the early 1980s? I suppose it was the best of times and the worst of times – and the art was just about the same - I’m just very glad that I was there to see such a lot of it.
Andrew Hurman 2008