Shades of Noir breaks new academic ground in the arts

Amid the furore surrounding London Metropolitan University over the revocation of their licence to teach non-EU students which has cast a somewhat gloomy cloud over the HE sector; the launch of a major exhibition to showcase the work of high-achieving black alumni of University of the Arts London is most timely in helping to restore the positive image of London universities.

The exhibition called Happening To Be, throws the spotlight on black alumni that have become successful and accomplished international artists and creative practitioners. Take Yinka Shonibare MBE for example, who graduated in fine art in 1989. He is famed for his exploration of colonialism and post-colonialism, most notably Nelson’s Ship in a bottle, his first public commission displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. He was also a Turner Prize nominee in 2004.

Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship-in-a-Bottle

Yinka’s fellow exhibitors have equally impressive résumés. Creative Director and Philanthropist Trevor Robinson CBE, is creator of the Tango soft drinks commercials filmed during the nineties; Professor Andrew Ramroop OBE, is a Saville Row master tailor; Professor Ablade Glover OBE, is Dean of the College of Art at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, and Ngozi Onwurah is a multi-award-winning filmmaker, the first black female in Britain to direct a major film, Welcome to the Terrodome in 1994, best known for her acclaimed 2006 BBC TV drama Shoot the Messenger, which won that year’s Prix Italia as well as two BAFTAs.

The exhibition, curated by Kimathi Donkor, also an alumnus of University of the Arts London and an accomplished international artist, is part of the institution’s Task Group on Race and Ethnicity in Degree Classification (REDC). This programme aims to tackle the differential degree attainment between black and minority ethnic and white home students and students who pay the overseas rate.

This programme is breaking new ground by exploring the issue of race and ethnicity within arts, design and communication in higher education and through discussions and debates both across the university and externally on issues of race. *Research by the Arts Council reveals that the dominant image many people have of ‘the arts’ are opera, ballet, Shakespearian theatre, classical music and art in galleries, perceived as being elitist.

This raises key questions as to why widespread perceptions of ‘the arts’ do not include the art of world cultures, that are often excluded from the curricula within university arts programmes. That is set to change, at least at University of the Arts London, through the Shades of Noir project, where a special online database has been created to provide ethnically diverse teaching resources, artefacts, speakers and lecturers, designed to support an inclusive curriculum and enhance the student experience.

There are also a series of videos available to view online that promote the voice of creatives, educators and students who wish to share their views around race, identity and culture both within higher education and the cultural and creative sectors.

The exhibition, which only opened five days ago has already attracted over 100 visitors with a champagne press reception set to take place on Friday 28th September and private viewing on Wednesday 17 October, both by invitation only, with public viewings running until 27 October.

The success of the alumni featured at the exhibition marks a proud moment for the university. However, Mark Crawley, UAL’s Dean of Students and Director of Widening Participation has resolutely expressed the commitment of the university towards addressing the issue of differential degree attainment:

"We are incredibly proud that our black alumni have achieved the type of stellar success that Happening to Be represents. But we are also keenly aware that, like most higher education institutions in Britain, we need to raise the average level of degree attainment among our black and minority ethnic students…”

"There is no disparity in talent… UAL believes that greater awareness of the sheer breadth and brilliance of black achievement across the arts will help to raise expectations and broaden horizons.”

Happening To Be – 10 September 2012 – 27 October 2012


Lethaby Gallery, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Granary Building, 1 Granary Square, Kings Cross, London, N1C 4AA

Opening Times:

Monday – Friday 10 am – 6 pm; Saturdays 10 am – 4 pm

(except – closed on 15 and 29 September).

*Arts, What’s in Word? Ethnic Minorities and the Arts, (2000)

Deborah Gabriel

About Deborah Gabriel

Dr Deborah Gabriel is a former journalist and PR specialist who completed her PhD in 2014 and now is a Senior Lecturer in Media, Culture & Communication at Bournemouth University. She is also the Founder of People With Voices and the Founder and CEO of Black British Academics.

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