A few weeks ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Brother Vellies dress spearheaded the return of political slogans on the red carpet. The inherent contradiction of wearing a Tax the Rich ballgown at the Met Gala – one of the most opulent events in the world – made the garment divisive, but also spoke to its power as an incredibly potent piece of political dressing.
Last night, the Broadway actor Chester Gregory wore a jacket from the Los Angeles-based label Rare Loyalty & Trust, with the words “Black Art Matters” on the back. Topped with a Basquiat-like crown, the pithy slogan worked in a similar way to Ocasio-Cortez’s dress. In the context of the Tony awards ceremony, which celebrates Broadway, it cut to the heart of the issue of representation (a survey from 2020 found that just 20% of theatre in New York was created by people of colour). “We wanted to make a bold, elegant, timeless statement,” says Rare Loyalty & Trust’s Tony Jones. “There are traces of black innovators in most art you see in any industry nowadays.”
The jacket also referenced a specific movement that fought against under-representation of black people and people of colour in cultural spaces.
“The Black Art Matters movement is really a continuation of the Black Arts Movement that was started in the US by a group of politically motivated black writers, artists and musicians,” explains the artist and activist Annis Harrison. “It has its roots in New York, but also involved other cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Michigan and many more.”
Harrison says that the movement migrated to the UK in the 80s, making Wolverhampton its home and was re-cast as the British Black Arts Movement. “The most important exhibition that came out of this movement was The Other Story, which was shown at the Hayward Gallery in 1989,” she says. “The show was curated by Rasheed Araeen and brought together artists of black African, Caribbean and Asian heritage.” Artists who took part included Lubaina Himid, Hassan Sharif and Sonia Boyce.
Despite the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic giving people pause to think about race, Harrison says that the Black Art Matters movement is as important as ever. “We need to make sure that the historical artwork [by black artists and people of colour] are out on display,” she says. This is so that “the next generation of inspirational young black and artists of colour and the general public can see the true history of the contributions of black and artists of colour to the UK’s art canon”. Representation extends to black artists on curriculums and more black faces lecturing in universities and curating galleries, she says.
Harrison says the visibility of Gregory’s red carpet suit is important. “I feel that it’s a good thing to place the statement Black Art Matters on a suit at this very public event,” she says, because “black art is in danger of being forgotten once again”.
As Gregory wrote on Instagram: “Now that the world is slowly opening back up, we can’t ever forget the work that needs to be done to ‘redesign the room’.”