The British art world can no longer ignore or marginalise black artists, according to the sculptor Thomas J Price, who believes black British culture is finally being absorbed into the mainstream.
Price said the large number of exhibitions featuring black British artists – such as Entangled Pasts, Life Between Islands, Get Up, Stand Up Now and In the Black Fantastic – had “set a new standard” for representation, triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
“The gates opened up so wide that the breadth and depth of British culture was seen and you can’t close that up again. It can’t go back to where it was,” he said.
“That has set a new standard, which artists have been pushing for for so long. The lack of recognition or credit can’t return.”
Price is taking part in another landmark exhibition, The Time Is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure. The huge survey of black art curated by Ekow Eshun features artists including Claudette Johnson, Amy Sherald and Kerry James Marshall.
Some of the work has never before been seen in the UK, but Price is the only artist to create a piece specifically for the exhibition. Called As Sounds Turn to Noise, it took a year to make, stands 2.8m (9ft) tall, is made of bronze, and was constructed using 3D printing and lost-wax casting techniques.
The figure – a young black woman in athleisure wear with long braids – is an amalgamation of several people Price interviewed while working in downtown Los Angeles.
The huge work is one of the first people will see on entry to the exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery and Price says it will immediately confront viewers about their ideas of what a black person can or should look like. “It’s 9ft tall. She’s got her hands on her hips and is a very powerful looking character, but there’s ambiguity there with the closed eyes. It allows for vulnerability.”
Price said he took inspiration from the Greek goddesses Diana, Athena and Nike when making As Sounds Turn to Noise and gave the sculpture a classic contrapposto or tilted pose. “It’s not imposing traits or tropes or very limited understandings of what it means to be a black person,” he said.
The sculptor, best known for Warm Shores, a homage to the Windrush generation that stands outside the Hackney council offices in east London, believes the UK is starting to catch up with the US in acknowledging that its history is intertwined with that of its black citizens.
“We like to pretend that we’ve never done anything wrong,” said Price, who believes shows such as The Time Is Always Now demonstrate that the UK’s connection to its history of slavery and colonialism is “undeniable”.
He also believes the general public now want shows that reflect a history they are increasingly aware of. He said the surge in shows about black British art was “a testament to the quality of the work that’s there and the taste of the general public who increasingly feel like they’ve been hoodwinked”.
“In art, if you can get people thinking, they’re then inclined to ask questions. I hope they bring that into their daily lives, so when they’re told something or a lazy trope is used they now question it”.
There has been a trend of black British artists being recognised after many years on the margins, including Lubaina Himid, Ingrid Pollard, Barbara Walker, Helen Cammock, Veronica Ryan, Liz Johnson Artur, Claudette Johnson and Sonia Boyce, who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale.
Price said he had taken inspiration from the generation that came before him. “Looking at Frank Bowling’s work or Claudette Johnson’s work or Sonia Boyce’s work, it’s inspiring to see how they retained their identities, despite the fact they shouldn’t have had to.”
There have been false dawns for the recognition of black British art: there were several shows in the mid-to-late 1980s at major institutions, only for interest to fade. Price believes this time is different. “I’m an optimist but I’m also a realist; the reason I’m optimistic is because I know the quality that’s there.
“The shows have been so good and the artists who have come through have proven themselves again.”
The Time Is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure is at the National Portrait Gallery in London from 22 February to 19 Mayy