Keith Piper is a British artist, curator, researcher and academic.

  Keith Piper
     

Born in 1960, Piper is a member of the generation of Black British subjects whose parents formed the first mass wave of migration from the Caribbean, Indian Sub Continent and Africa during the 1950s. Raised within these evolving settler communities, this generation was educated and socialised within a British context still carrying racist ideologies, practices and attitudes derived from its colonial past

 
     

Although challenged by successive waves of political activism, this racism, by the mid 1970s was still largely intact and being sharpened by economic decline. The first waves of British educated young black people began to emerge from the school system into a 1970s landscape in which structural unemployment, an aggressively racist police force and a surge in neo-fascist activity combined to make the newly emerging status of 'Black Britishness' feel all too precarious.

The resultant radicalisation of this generation took a number of forms. The most dramatic found expression in the anti-police 'uprisings' which punctuated the period between the historic events at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, the spate of 'riots' which ignited nationwide in 1981, and the uprisings sparked in response to the shooting of Cherry Groce in Brixton and the death of Cynthia Jarrett in Tottenham in 1985.

   
 

 

 
This history is explored in greater depth in Pipers digital paper 'Pathways to the 1980s', first presented at the Blk Art Group Symposium, Sheffield in Feb 2012 and at the Blk Art Group Research Project conference ‘Reframing the Moment' in October 2012.
   
     

Piper was to spend his childhood and formative years in Birmingham, a city heavily hit by the decline of the UK’s manufacturing and industrial base during the 1970's. In common with many young people of Caribbean descent, his home context was marked by an adherence to the Christian fundamentalism bought by migrant parents from their islands of origin. As with many young people of this generation, Piper underwent a rebellion against what could be seen as the structural conservatism that this background often enforced

 
 
 
Margaret Thatcher Swamping Speech 1978

However, as in all cases, the moment and mode of this rebellion is key. During the summer of 1976, which ended with riot on the streets of Notting Hill, Piper was busy studying for his O-Level exams. At the moment of Margaret Thatcher's notorious 'swamping speech' of 1978 and her accession to power in 1979, Piper was in throws of A-Level study. Although these events were at times referenced in Pipers teenage practice, it was only in late 1979 when he first joined the Foundation Course in Art and Design at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry that a more emphatically politicised practice began to emerge.

  Black Art & Done  

It was at Lanchester Polytechnic that Piper first met a young artist from Wolverhampton called Eddie Chambers. Like Piper, Chambers was a product of the rigorously formal, conservative and literally fundamentalist Seventh Day Adventist Church. Like Piper, Chambers had spent the latter part of his teenage years listening to the lyrics of radicalised Reggae music and reading the writings of Black American political figures in search of new certainties. Unlike Piper however, Chambers was already converting interests into positive action, bringing together a small group of artist friends from the Wolverhampton region, aided by the mentorship of local activist Eric Pembleton. He was already working towards an exhibition by what was then called the 'Wolverhampton Young Black Artists Group'. This exhibition would eventually be held in Wolverhampton Art Gallery in June 1981 under the title "Black Art an' done". The line up of artists in the show included Chambers, Dominic Dawes, Ian Palmer, Andrew Hazel and Piper.

 
'Black Art & Done' Exhibition Handout
  Africa Centre Poster  

The period from 1981 to 1984 saw the 'Wolverhampton Young Black Artist Group' re-named as the BLK Art Group, and a series of exhibitions mounted around the UK under the title of 'The Pan-Afrikan Connection'.  During this period the line up of artists would also evolve. Claudette Johnson, an art student studying at The Polytechnic Wolverhampton joined the group before the second show at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden in 1982.

 

In 1980, following the one year foundation course in Coventry, Chambers went to study Fine Art at Sunderland Polytechnic and Piper went to Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham. In the following year, Donald Rodney another young artist from the West Midlands, in this case Smethwick, called joined the Fine Art course at Trent Polytechnic Nottingham. He was introduced to Chambers by Piper and became involved in the Group’s activities.  In 1982, during a group exhibition at The Ikon Gallery another young Birmingham based artist, Marlene Smith introduced herself and became an active member.

 

A personal account of the formation and history of the blk art group, can be seen in the video by Piper, ‘Coming up in the Blk Moment’
 
     

This period was also characterised by the expansion of networks involving artists from around the country. In 1982, the BLK Art Group organised the 'First National Black Art Convention' held at The Polytechnic Wolverhampton. Contacts had already been made with veteran artist and activist Rasheed Araeen, London based artist Lubaina Himid and Shaka Dedi, director of the soon to be opened Black Art Gallery, all of whom spoke at the Convention. In the audience came first meetings with young London based artist Sonia Boyce, Brenda Agard and members of the Black Audio Film Collective. A plenary session called in response to Claudette Johnson's presentation to the conference is often cited as a key moment in forging the evolution of black women's creative practices that would emerge as a powerful strand of practice throughout the 1980's and beyond

  Blk art convention

Although the BLK Art group would only continue for another two years, a range of practices, which would later begin to be characterised (perhaps problematically) as a ‘Black Art Movement' began to emerge through the decade within the practice of a growing number of young artists of South Asian, African and Afro Caribbean descent. These artists were supported through a range of shared social spaces, and through the curatorial energies of a artist activists such as Lubaina Himid, Rasheed Araeen, Joseph Olubu, Gavin Jantjes, Eddie Chambers and the space which became the ‘Black Art Gallery’ directed first by Shakka Dedi and later by Marlene Smith. It was also supported through the slow, hard fought and painstaking opening up of public institutions and funding structures in response to these new practices throughout the decade.

 

     
Piper's practice continued to develop through the 1980s. Having completed his undergraduate degree at Trent Polytechnic in 1983, he moved to London to undertake an MA in Environmental Media at the Royal College of Art (RCA) between 1984 and 1986. This period saw Piper staging his first solo show entitled 'Past Imperfect, Future Tense' at the Black Art Gallery, Finsbury Park, London in June 1984.
  Past Imperfect Future Tense Poster

During the 1980s, Pipers work would develop from a largely painting, collage and print based practice, seen during the BLK Art Group shows, to an increasing use of mixed media and installation, often utilising technology based elements.


During his undergraduate degree show at Trent Polytechnic in 1983 he was to use a combination of projected film loop, audio and sculpture for the first time within his practice. This integration of media would go on to characterise his practice during his MA studies at the RCA.

     

Towards the end of the 1980s, Pipers exploration into the use of analogue recording, reprographic and photographic technologies would be supplemented by the arrival of the first wave of affordable computers with capabilities that could be utilised by visual artists. Becoming increasingly involved in the use of the low cost Amiga computer system as a means of generating and montaging animation, still imagery and sound, Piper began to generate a jagged 'cut & paste' multi layered aesthetic which would come to characterise his practice of the period into the 1990s.

   
An example of this Amiga based 'cut & paste' aesthetic can be seen in the animation ‘Surveillances' (tagging the other) produced in 1991 in response to issues arising in the run up to the instigation of a ‘Single European Market’ in 1992 and it’s implications in respect of the movement of non white peoples into and around the Continent.
 
     

With this and other research orientated projects aiming to explore historical legacies and their power to shape our perceptions of racial difference within a range of arenas, from sport, to religion, to the recounting of history and the impact of new technologies, Piper moved his practice forward through a series of international venues and interventions during the first half of the1990s.


   
   
Relocating the Remains Book  

When approached by InIVA (the Institute of International Visual Art) in the mid 1990s to stage a 'mid career' retrospective, Piper suggested a 'virtual' rather than actual representation of past work through a series of interactive installations and virtual gallery spaces on a CD-Rom.

This project evolved into 'Relocating the Remains', an exhibition that toured to venues in the UK and USA from 1997 – 1999, and a monograph published by InIVA featuring an in-depth essay by Kobena Mercer entitled ‘Witness at the crossroads: An Artist’s Journey in Post-Colonial Space’.

   
     

During this period some of the principal aims of the earlier 'black arts movement' around the visibility of the practice of black artists and their integration into the main stream of contemporary arts practice were in part realised through the historic successes of members of a younger generation of Black Artists with the awarding of the Turner Prize to Chris Ofili in 1998, and Steve McQueen in 1999.

   
     

In the year 2000 Piper performed a partial career shift taking up an Assistant Professors post in Electronic Media in the School of Fine Art at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, USA. In 2003 he returned to the United Kingdom to take up a Principal Lecturers position in Media Production in the School of Cultural and Innovation Studies at the University of East London. In 2006 he took up a Readership in Fine Art and Digital Media at Middlesex University, London where he continues to teach.

   
     

In 2011, Piper reunited with two other ex-members of The Blk Group, Marlene Smith and Claudette Johnson to form the ‘Blk Art Group Research Project’. Taking a renewed examination of the archives and historical legacies of the Blk Art group as it’s starting point, this research project was set up to promote debate and scholarly enquiry into what had become know as the British ‘Black Art Movement’ of the 1980s.


This Research Group staged two major projects in 2012. The first was a symposium coinciding with a retrospective exhibition entitled ‘The Blk Art Group’ held at the Graves Gallery, Sheffield. The second was an international conference entitled ‘Reframing the Moment; Legacies of the 1982 Blk Art Group Conference’ held on Saturday 27th October 2012. This was thirty years almost to the day after ‘The First National Black Art Convention’ was held in the same institution in October 1982.

The keynote address for this conference was delivered by Professor Kobena Mercer. Entitled ‘Perforations’ Mercer’s paper worked to map the Blk Art Group into a diasporic model of art history by looking at 'translations' of the US Black Arts Movement ideas and the prevalence of a cut-and-mix aesthetic and exists as the most detailed and analytical accounts of the era to date.

  Blk Art group Conference

     
 
Kobena Mercer keynote address. ‘Reframing the moment: Legacies of the 1983 Blk Art Group Conference’. 27th October 2012. Introduced by Paul Goodwin
   
     

Chaired by Paul Goodwin and Marlene Smith, the conference also featured papers by key academics and commentators including Courtney J Martin, Anjalie Dalal-Clayton, Sonia Boyce, Rina Arya, Ella Spencer, Amna Malik, and Keith Piper. A documentary record of this event is available on the Blk Art Group Research Project website.

   
     

A sense of the ongoing conversation around the area of black art practice was conveyed through the final session of the Conference in which Respondents Lubaina Himid, David Dibosa, , Roshini Kempadoo, Shaheen Merali and Chair Paul Goodwin voice their impressions of the day.

 
   
     

This conversation has been progressively taken up by subsequent generations of younger artists such as the Qtipoc Collective Creativity group. In their roundtable conversation of January 2014, group members Evan Ifekoya, Raju Rage and others including writer Morgan Quaintance extended a dialogue with members of earlier waves of art practice including Sonia Boyce, Ingrid Pollard, Maria Kheirkhah, June Givanni, Amanda Holiday, Sonya Dyer, Harold Offeh, Micheal Cadette, Paul Goodwin, Keith Piper and others.

   
     
qtipoc collective meeting  
Collective Creativity session 'Thinking through Legacy: Redefining the Black arts movement' Saturday 11th January 2014, Tate Modern London. Photo by Keith Piper
A documentary record of this conversation is available on the qtipoc collective creativity website.    
   
           
     

Keith Piper continues with his art and research practices and currently lives, works and teaches in London.