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Black Blossoms
J Cowans

Art heist raises questions about the value of black creativity

The burglary of Black Blossoms reminds us to ask why we don’t see enough art by black women in major institutions

At the beginning of March, Black Blossoms, a unique collective that has been celebrating and platforming the work of black women artists since 2015 through a series of exhibitions, was dealt a huge blow. Founder Bee Tajudeen woke on March 2 to find that the contents of her storage cupboard, where she was storing 20 pieces of art in preparation for an exhibition, had been stolen. “This feels like a personal attack on my brand and my livelihood,” she wrote a few days later in a statement released on Twitter, “I want to take this moment to give a sincere apology to all the artists that have been affected”.

When we speak on the phone a week or so on, it's clear Bee is still shaken from the incident and devastated for her artists, but she also has something else on her mind: the value of black art, both in how it's seen by the general public and by institutions. At present, she's waiting for the police to look over CCTV footage on her West London estate which might give a clearer picture of the heist, adding that the police have been “as helpful as they can but they have more pressing issues”. Although the Black Blossom's artworks are on the police's art loss database, the only Metropolitan police unit tasked with finding art thieves had its detectives reassigned to the Grenfell Tower investigation last August.

While there's no suggestion at present that the burglary was premeditated, Bee believes that the thieves will have known exactly what they had stolen. There was nothing else in her cupboard apart from the art and much of the work was framed. “The art was so good they stole it!” she exclaims.

She describes some of the more memorable artwork in detail. “Dionne Ward’s piece took her 180 hours to draw and it’s a hand-drawn piece, of her hand, her mother’s hand and her sister’s hand. And it’s absolutely beautiful.” Another piece was by Sarina Mantle, a series of patterns called Ancient Futures which Bee says left her “speechless”. “The patterns were just speaking another language to me of this Afrofuturism, symbolism. It just blew my mind away.”

London is the epicentre of art crime. According to Lynda Albertson, CEO of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, it's an “ideal site for moving art because of its position as a centre of the art world and global art market”. Meanwhile, art crime is ranked the third highest grossing criminal enterprise worldwide. But as Bee points out, “My artists are contemporary. They’re not Monet’s, they’re not Picasso’s that used to get stolen in the art world. For their artwork to be stolen: it’s like, okay, what do you think you’ll gain from it?” She thinks it “raises very interesting questions about the value of black art. If someone’s stealing something it means it has a high value.”

It's true that black art has gone up in value in recent years. In 2016 it was reported that African art value had risen by 200% since 2012, and in the US, Forbes reported in 2008 that the “best work (by African Americans) is going up exponentially in value” after a slow start. But, as put by former Art and Antiques Unit detective Vernon Rapley in an interview with the Evening Standard, art “almost never stolen because it’s a beautiful object”. Although Bee's artists’ work is more likely to be an exception to this rule because of the fact their paintings are ‘unknown’ and contemporary, Rapley said that art is more often used “as a commodity that can be used as collateral for other illicit activity”. 

Overall, all Bee and her artists really want is for the art to be returned and for there to be more support for black British women in the arts. “I need my work back, more than wanting to know why it has been stolen, or by whom,” says Dione. “This drawing is something that I am proud of and I created with a purpose; to which I have dedicated time, energy and love. As a collection of black female artists beginning our careers, it is our intention to show the industry what we are capable of and we deserve to benefit from our own creativity and talent.”

Sarina takes a more spiritual view, describing the range of emotions she went through after learning her work was stolen, before settling on compassion. “I feel this is a personal lesson on growth, on how I react which will determine the outcome of my stolen pieces,” she says. “My reaction is that of continuation, determination and most of all love.”

“I do exhibitions with Black Blossoms to prove to naysayers that black women making art deserve to receive the social and economic benefits that many of their contemporaries receive much earlier in their careers” – Bee Tajudeen

Although it's difficult to find statistics on the number of black women artists on display at major art galleries and museums (a project is running to catalogue works by black artists in British public collections for the first time), it's widely accepted that the number is small. That's why the Tate's ‘Soul of a Nation’ exhibition last year was so momentous – it was one of the first times black British got to see a major representation of art that reflected our identities. Bee doesn't want to preface black art, talent and curation with ‘black’ but recognises that the fact blackness is the very reason some artists have been “rendered invisible in the arts”.

As she points out, usually “we have to DIY these projects because we don’t have all the funding”. We're not always able to “go and spend £100 a month on storage space spend a couple more hundred on insurance. We don’t have these privileges. (But) our work is good. Our work is so good. So when these institutions say the work isn’t up to standard or whatever excuse they want to make to not have us in their galleries, on their walls – well, the work is so good it’s been stolen.”

Having been to a Black Blossoms exhibition I can attest that the quality was high and, for me as a black woman, particularly fulfilling to see. Prints of some of the artists Bee works with – like Dorcas Creates – already line my walls, and there are other pieces I'm desperate to get my hands on too (by non-illicit means). The black creative community at large is devastated by what has happened to the artwork. We are keeping our eyes peeled for any black art that looks like it belongs in a gallery.

Bee has learnt some lessons from the heist: to always have a strategy in place and that leadership can be painful as well as fulfilling. But mainly, it seems she's learnt how important it will be to press on with her work. “I do exhibitions with Black Blossoms to prove to naysayers that black women making art deserve to be in the spotlight and receive the social and economic benefits that many of their contemporaries receive much earlier in their careers.”

Follow the Black Blossoms artists here: Camilla DanielsDionne WardDorcas MagbadeloLesley AsareLola BetikuRahana DariahRene MaticSharon FosterSarina Mantle