FFrom the 1980s to the early 2000s, artist and archivist Rita Keegan fervently collected and preserved bulletins, brochures, photographs and exhibition literature from the British black arts scene. “That [didn’t] no matter how fabulous the show is, if you didn’t have the ephemeral, it was hard to say you existed. ” she said the Art newspaper last summer. “It’s very easy to get out of the story if you don’t have those pieces of paper.”
Boxes and files stored behind the sofa in Keegan’s living room and a garden shed in his south London home are a portal to the past, specifically to the seminal. British black arts movement founded in 1982. This pivotal moment in art history saw artists like Sonia Boyce, Eddie Chambers, Denzil Forrester, Lubaina Himid and Maud Sulter mobilized to create and curate works together after the Brixton uprisings of 1981 and in response to their marginalization from the mainstream art world.
Keegan’s personal records from this era (officially known as Rita Keegan’s archive project) were exhibited at the South London Gallery last year. Although slightly frustrated by the Covid restrictions, 13,000 visitors were able to get up close to a variety of notable documentation from the British black arts movement, including a private viewing of Passion: Black Women’s Creativity of the African Diaspora, a 1989 exhibition of black works. women artists and a handmade Christmas card for Keegan from the late artist Donald Rodney.
Now Keegan is back in the same gallery with his first solo show in 15 years. Your title, Somewhere between here and there, is inspired by a poem written by his artist uncle, Keith Simon, whom he did not know very well, but who had moved to England from the United States in the early 1950s and exhibited works alongside artists associated with the Artists’ Movement of the United States. Caribbean of the 60s, like Ronald Moody, Althea McNish and Errol Lloyd. Keegan said In an interview that he wanted to include it in the exhibition so that it could “become part of the canon of the art world”.
This exhibition marks a great opportunity to bring Keegan’s work back to the public consciousness, and visitors can expect to see digital animations, collages, textiles, and paintings, as well as a remixed version of a mixed-media installation originally featured at the Bluecoat. from Liverpool. as part of the 1992 Trophies of Empire exhibition curated by Keith Piper. A highlight of the show will be Keegan’s Social fabric, built from A4 scraps donated by a global network of friends and family.
Family and the concept of memory have long been themes in Keegan’s work. In the style of Frida Kahlo-inspired self-portraits, she often painted her parents against bright, decorative backgrounds. He has an extensive archive of family photographs showing his middle-class black Canadian family dating back to the 1880s. His series of monoprinted collages often features photographs of loved ones, such as his 1992 work. Remember me, which shows her smiling mother sitting on a grassy area and enveloped in sunlight. These works also explore the politics of dress, adornment, and black female identity.
In a conversation with London-based artist, curator and educator Barby Asante published in the upcoming book Mirror that reflects darkly, which is part memoirs and part archive reference book published of Goldsmiths Press, Keegan says: “I grew up with all these images. But also the other images I got were from school or from textbooks or from magazines and I didn’t reflect on them. That Victorian image, I didn’t reflect on that. But at home I knew that I had 100 years of photography and what I saw in art books did not reflect my experience ”.
Keegan was born in the Bronx in New York in 1949 and is of Caribbean and Canadian descent. She trained as a painter at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1969 to 1972 before emigrating to the UK in 1980. She was heavily involved in the Soho nightlife. Reflecting on this time, Lucy Davies, director of 198 Contemporary Art and Learning, writes in Mirror that reflects darkly: “Good life, bad life: both can be found in 1980s Soho. That’s where I met Rita, the goddess of the Bronx, at Fred’s, the not-so-private members club on Dean Street, where we both work at the door “.
By 1983, Keegan was constantly working in the arts, helping to establish the Brixton Art Gallery, which occupied three interconnected rail arches on Atlantic Road. There, she was the curator of the first exhibition of the Black Women Artists collective. Brixton also showcased the work of the Gay and Lesbian Artists Group and was the first British gallery to hold national exhibitions where artists were selected on the basis of being queer.
Emerging technologies would prove crucial in Keegan’s career. In 1984, he co-founded CopyArt, a resource and education center for community groups and artists working with computers, scanners and photocopiers, funded by a grant from the Greater London Council (GLC) of Ken Livingstone. They also organized workshops for activists and community groups and helped produce printed materials for events such as the 1986 anti-apartheid rally. Although the GLC was soon to be abolished by Margaret Thatcher, it helped develop the black arts sector through grants from the “Subcommittee on ethnic arts”, whose budget grew from £ 400,000 in 1982-3 to more than £ 2,000,000 in 1985-6.
Keegan was also a staff member of the Women’s Artists Slide Library (WASL), from 1985 to 1990, where she established the Women of Color Index, a catalog of slides that record the work of black female artists.
He continued to produce art alongside curating and archiving and exhibited in various group exhibitions, including Let the Canvas Come to Life with Dark Faces at Bluecoat in 1990, which explored the links between self-portrait and the black community alongside photographer Ingrid Pollard. He also participated in the exhibition Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966-1996, at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
She had a solo show at 198 Gallery in 1998 that featured a kitchen and bedroom installation along with her grandmother’s extensive wardrobe of handmade aprons. TO revision published in Third text notes that “Keegan’s use of video projections adds dreams, thus reminding the viewer of the ways in which dreams act as raw material and as a place of critical memory and nostalgia.”
By the mid-2000s, Keegan had begun showing his work less often: his last solo show, Transformations, was held at the Lewisham Arthouse and Horniman Museum in 2006. Since then, he has remained aloof from the world of art. contemporary art. Many of his peers, such as Boyce, Himid, and Forrester have recently had their “comeback” moments, with institutional recognition after being ignored for decades, but Keegan’s work and legacy has remained relatively unexplored until now, despite that she is one of the most important. figureheads of black art in Britain. It’s not that Keegan wasn’t actively producing new work, but, as she herself pointed out, “There is very little room for an artist after 50.”
However, Keegan’s moment seems to be here and now. She is featured at this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition spearheaded by Yinka Shonibare, which for the first time will give the work of African diaspora artists a high priority. Both somewhere between there and here and Mirror that reflects darkly (detailing his childhood, extensive archive and career through a series of essays and intimate interviews) will be key in marking Keegan’s place in history and introducing many people to the work of an important pioneer.
These projects will also be an opportunity for those closest to the artist to finally see her shine. Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski, an artist, designer, and archivist who has worked with the Rita Keegan Archive Project for six years, wrote last year in a letter to Keegan: “I am looking forward to finally seeing your artwork on the gallery walls. from the South London Gallery in the new year. It’s the strangest thing to be so familiar with your work but never have seen it on the walls (other than your own). “
Somewhere between There and here they will be on view in the South London Gallery from September 17 to November 28. Mirror Reflecting Darkly is published by Goldsmiths Press on October 1
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism