North Staffordshire art exhibition explores what it means to be strong, British and Black

Kwanzaa Collective UK has teamed up with ArtsKeele for the collaboration that is on display at Keele University

A new exhibition at Keele University is showcasing the art of black women living and working in Staffordshire.

‘Strong, British and Black’ launched on September 26 and is inspired by the song, ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’. It is a collaboration between Kwanzaa Collective UK and ArtsKeele and builds on the themes of last year’s ArtsKeele Cultural Affairs ‘I AM’ exhibition.

Artists used a variety of mediums such as film, photography, painting, poetry, sculpture and digital art to explore the answers to three questions.

What does it mean to be a strong woman? What does it mean to be Strong and Black? What does it mean to be Black British in a country that often considers you Black in Britain?

The exhibiting artists are Alisha Friday, Adina Lawrence, Becki Kremer, Cynthia Coady, Daby Obiechefu, Gabriella Gay, Nom Ncube and Tanya Watson.

Lead artist for the exhibition, Gabriella Gay, explained how important it was for the exhibition to ‘highlight the voices’ of local black artists.

“Too often black females are overlooked in society, and black artists have been overlooked locally,” said Gabriella, from Newcastle-under-Lyme.

“I felt it was important to highlight the voices of those artists and what they want to say. Although I was the lead artist, curating the exhibition, we worked together choosing the theme, something that we all felt strongly about, and could respond too in our own way, using our own artform, and creative voice.

“It builds on the themes of the Cultural Affairs I AM exhibition which I was part of at Keele last year. That student produced and curated exhibition was brilliant and innovative for Keele, as it was the first time that the exhibition space was used to highlight the work of black and brown artists.

“The exhibition title takes inspiration from one of my favourite songs by Nina Simone, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. It’s a beautiful, empowering song, and when I heard it, it made me stop. It has become an anthem for black people, especially in Universities, around the world.”

Kwanzaa Collective UK, based in North Staffordshire, are a group of artists, academics and activists of colour. Gabriella and other members of the collective are keen for artists of colour, as well as allies, to come forward to support their work.

The artists behind the exhibition (Image: ArtsKeele/Kwanzaa Collective UK)

“Through creativity, collective activism and collaboration we aim to amplify the voices of black and brown people,” said Gabriella.

“Our symbol is based on Kuumba, the creativity symbol from the seven principles of Kwanzaa as art and creativity underpins the work we do.

“We are an association, so if you are an artist, activist or academic of colour then you can become a member. If you are a young person then you can join KC Young Activist, and if you are an ally you can work with us on projects, attend workshops or support us on social media.”

Through the exhibition, Kwanzaa Collective UK hope to inspire and challenge people in Staffordshire’s ideas of beauty and Britishness.

Gabriella explained: “By putting work in the exhibition space at Keele University we are showing ourselves, being visible and taking up space. We are sharing parts of our history, story and creativity.

“We want people in Staffordshire to listen, to be inspired and to challenge their ideas of beauty and Britishness.”

“We have been planning this exhibition since the beginning of 2020, so you can imagine how much work has gone into getting it on the walls an in the exhibition space, in the current climate.

“We’ve had to be patient, flexible and creative in our approach to this exhibition. As a result we have created a lovely mix of art in the space, for students and staff to encounter every day, online artist talks and workshops and Covid friendly events like our outdoor projection art and film.”

The exhibition also included a projection onto Keele Chapel (Image: Jenny Harper)

Kerry Jones, from ArtsKeele, added: “We were really excited to have the opportunity to work with Kwanzaa Collective UK on developing the ‘Strong, British and Black’ exhibition.

“The exhibition, projection event and workshop series have really opened up the opportunity for discussion, insight, and reflection led by this formidable team of local artists.”

Strong, British and Black will be on display at Keele University until December 4. For more information you can visit Keele University’s website.