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The man on the front row

When a man tells artist Keith Piper that he feels "shouted at" and asks what white people should make of Piper's work, conversations about racism and its creators become even more important.

The Seven Rages of Man
Keith Piper

There didn’t appear to be an elephant in the room, just your average group of bipeds gathered in the Millennium Galleries to see artist/lecturer Keith Piper being interviewed by fellow artist/lecturer Dr Yuen Fong Ling. But then came the elephant, and it didn’t come quietly.

To understand the elephant, it helps to know that Keith Piper was one of the early members of the Blk Art Group, which was formed in the West Midlands as Margaret Thatcher came to power, during a period of recession, civil unrest, racial conflict, and the decimation of British industry. It set out to present a visual counter-narrative to the accepted view of history and look beyond ‘the damage of the colonial moment’.

Keith’s installation, Outside Narration, is a kind of collage made up of seven masks and backdrops called the Seven Rages of Man, twinned with artefacts retrieved from the museum stores. Having been in store for 35 years, the Seven Rages is now on display at the Graves Gallery until 31 December 2022 and I’d encourage you to go and see it. But back to the elephant.

The Seven Rages of Man
Keith Piper

Just as we were about to wrap up for the evening, a man on the front row asked a question that travelled down the rows like a bout of hives: ‘What are white people supposed to think about your work?’. He wanted to know the artist’s intention. No, he wanted to tell the artist, the interviewer, and the Thursday night bipeds that the work made him feel ‘shouted at’, that this was what culture wars were made of, and that if Keith Piper wanted to tell the truth, then he needed to tell the world that Black Africans sold their own people into slavery too.

Outside Narration is not the stuff of passive appreciation. It tells a story of violence, ignorance, solidarity, education, identity, and hope. Look at that list again and you’ll see that everything is a kind of power, even ignorance – especially ignorance.

When I look at the Seven Rages, I see something like a Russian doll because racism leaves imprints that help to construct complex, layered, and often fractured identities. But I see hope in our individual and collective ability to move beyond racialised trauma through re-storying and solidarity, and the solidarity in Keith Piper’s art is across racial lines. And that’s important because part of the legacy of racism is the pervasive, divide-and-conquer narrative of them and us, reinforced by structural bias that sees solidarity as betrayal.

The burden of racism, the intellectual property rights, belong to its creators. They need to own it. But that’s not the point, is it? Racism is an effective tool for division and oppression. It’s a vote winner, a status enhancer, and a method of mind control like no other. For politicians and other predators, it’s a wise long-term investment. And it relies on the burdens being carried by Black people and by many disenfranchised white people.

As Sheffield publishes its Race Equality Commission report and seeks to decolonise its street names, the comments from the man in the front row highlight the need for creative spaces where we can speak openly about our common past, present, and future. In these days of online extremism and recycled hatred, they are a timely reminder that solidarity and hope are types of power too and we need them more than ever, especially among those of us who don’t feel valued by the world we live in.

In the autumn, Connected Worlds (a social enterprise hosted by Sheffield Flourish) hopes to run a series of events combining art, history, discussion, and creativity in partnership with Sheffield Museums. We want to find a common language to discuss the magic that can transform divisions and differences into connections and community. In the words of the French philosopher and essayist Joseph Joubert, ‘The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory but progress’.

We all have the power to use our voices to re-story our world, to listen to one other and keep painting new narratives, even if there are elephants in the room.

Learn more

Outside Narration, curated by Keith Piper, is at Graves Gallery until 31 December 2022

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