Like the young British artists of 30 years ago, today’s crop of UK creatives are finding new ways to express dissent in a country where the vibes are off, and the future is uncertain
Taken from the summer 2023 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.
“What’s the price of England now? With Salford falling apart” – words belted through my AirPods by Lancastrian musician and performance artist Blackhaine, from the title track of his 2021 EP And Salford Falls Apart. I’ve never set foot in Salford. Honestly, I’ve never been further north than Birmingham, but I feel him. The rage and confusion in his voice is eerily familiar, almost comforting – a reminder that I am not the only one who knows the vibes in England are off.
Across the country in the late 1980s, the Young British Artists (YBAs) were linked by their capacity to provoke and interrogate a world on the cusp of a new millennium, various technological paradigm shifts and the internet. The group’s oeuvre includes Tracey Emin’s dishevelled “My Bed” (1998), Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde-preserved shark “The Physical Impossibility of Death in The Mind of Someone Living” (1991) and Chris Ofili’s elephant dung-infused “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996). Now, just as the YBAs used surrealism, sculpture and situationist philosophy to cleave open a world on the verge of permanent change, the post-Brexit, post-COVID, post-BLM, intra-AI creative milieu is shifting here again, and chaos has worked its way into the British bloodstream.
Everywhere you look online, there’s talk of mass-extinction events: everything’s a psyop now; everything is harder to decipher; gentrification has been rebranded as regeneration and terms like ‘stealth wealth’ and ‘quiet luxury’ dominate our timelines. The British art world faced up to the prospect of digital art in the lead-up to Y2K, and today an emerging generation grapples with the pervasiveness of machine learning (with just a face ID scan and a flick of the wrist, you, too, can listen to an AI-generated cover of Kanye West’s “Street Lights” by British Swede Ecco2k). Are artists on the verge of being automated out? Is it possible to dissent in a world so detached from the real, so submerged in simulacrums?
Though the desire to outsource society’s ills to artists can perpetuate the status quo, I often find myself aligning with the Baldwinian framing of the artist – a metaphysical architecture that suggests that, in some regards, the artist’s duty is to help us see reality again. It is to queer our understanding of the world and assist in the conjuring of alternative modalities, counter-histories and speculative futures. As cultures’ tectonic plates rumble, a new crop of artists emerges, their interventions in conversation with our hyper-accelerated day-to-day. I met a few on the cusp of this generational shift to discuss how they are using art to expose, interrogate and tweak reality as it appears in front of us.
“The ship is an analogy for the nation-state. Without Blackness the state wouldn’t exist. For me, this idea of Blackness no longer being contained means it has to destroy the ship,” says artist Dominique White as we discuss Deadweight, her latest body of work. This refusal to be captured is central to her practice. White’s kaolin clay-coated sculptures are manifestations of her understanding of the dialectic relationship between the sea and Blackness as an ontological category. Afro-pessimism, Detroit techno, Afrofuturism, Black nihilism and the myth of Drexciya, an underwater nation populated by the unborn children of Black women who escaped or were thrown overboard from slave ships, serve as theoretical foundations for her work. Deadweight, winner of this edition of the ‘Max Mara Art Prize for Women’, will feature a boat-like structure that’s been constructed and submerged in the Tyrrhenian Sea by the artist. It is set to show at Collezione Maramotti in Italy, followed by an 2024 exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in London: “I had this romantic idea that the work would eventually return to the sea and the kaolin clay would escape.” Though deeply rooted in the nautical, there remains a connection to the digital. White refers to Blackness as “a corporate algorithm, a demonic entity; not in a religious sense but in a computer kind of sense; unreadable, but also having the ability to corrupt systems”.
You have probably encountered Slawn’s paintings of sardonic, grimacing cartoons online. If you’re London-based, you have probably walked past one in Shoreditch. He refers to them in conversation as his Illuminati triangle and eye. There’s a memetic element to his practice; he recently implored his Instagram followers to create paintings and trade them in for one of his. The skater-turned-painter’s work serves as a commentary on respectability politics, grounded in a desire to liberate. “I paint stuff that people don’t wanna see in a nice way so they want to see it,” he says. “I used to paint dicks before. I want people to be comfortable with themselves. If you’ve seen the Batman film, The Killing Joke, you’ll understand what I am doing. This started as a joke but now I want to leave a legacy.” Slawn’s longing for a world free from the shackles of ‘polite society’ is a trait he has carried with him all his life, a notion crystallised in the stories he shares about his childhood: “When I was young I used to go to the corner and whisper swearwords to myself. One day someone caught me, so I started writing them down but I got caught again. I kind of liked how rowdy things got at my house because of it.”
Installation artist Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley is fascinated by the prospect of uploading parts of our souls to the digital realm. As a child, confused and intrigued by how characters were depicted in video games, she developed her own myth of a room in which people’s souls were scanned and uploaded on to private servers. Today, the crux of the artist and animator’s practice rests in capturing Black trans souls in environments that “could possibly hold us better than the physical world”. However, while maneuvering through this moment of plurality, of concurrent possibility and precarity, the artist proceeds with caution. “Large websites have used this idea of archiving community as a means to get us there. As archival tools they are fantastic but they are also fantastic as tools of control,” she says. In hopes of divesting from major social media sites, Brathwaite-Shirley has been creating digital experiments hosted in art spaces. “A lot of artworks made by artists in Hyperstack before the internet as we know it existed are inaccessible because the program is defunct. Sites like Facebook or Myspace aren’t structured to remember us, they are structured for us to echo remembrance.”
By examining snippets of information gleaned from his ancestors, Kudi archives, articulates and explores Black traditions. His multidisciplinary practice embodies the states of internal flux he has navigated over the years. For the Nigerian-born, UK-raised artist, “British assimilation and Nigerian assimilation do not always meet right.” However, he attempts to observe the best and worst of both and to elicit balance. Kudi’s interests lie in highlighting the Black quotidian – his sculptures consist of found objects with contemporary and historical ties to British and west African working-class life. “The realities of British culture, how we move, how we relate with each other, which, in the truest form is passive-aggressive, is classist in structure and heritage, but also wonderful,” he says. “We have to create and spark debate and offer perspective to reflect the opposing opinions that really exist in society. We do this digitally, but that is a bit of a vacuum. So art pushing to bring that to the IRL is very important; it is actually needed.
Central Saint Martin’s alum Corbin Shaw came of age in a world filled with fragments and nostalgic images of a pre-gentrified Sheffield passed down from his father. “My dad and I bonded a lot through our time sitting in the car,” the artist reminisces. “It was like we were in a confession booth chatting about how we felt, what we wanted.” These remnants of a bygone era are lodged into the text-heavy textile works he produces. “Pubs, boxing gyms, football chants. Lads making flags for the club or in honour of their friends, thinking about what these men said, what they did, how they acted, what they drank and what that meant. Football can be a vehicle for these boys to sing together, hug each other, sometimes kiss each other, talk about how they feel. It’s a little toxic but there are always little flickers of something beautiful. These hypermasculine, heteronormative environments are worth talking about.” Through the use of sharply satirical collage and postcard-esque cultural mashups, Shaw’s work demystifies and dismantles his internal monologue. “Everything seems so bleak and, if I have the ability to share a message through my work, I have to use that to say how I feel about masculinity or the political state of Britain.
Joy Yamusangie’s bright and playful aesthetic sensibility, which they credit to their Congolese heritage, allows them to dissent under the guise of placidity. At the core of their practice – which spans painting, ceramics and film – is an intrigue in people and a passion for storytelling. “My work is about who I am and my story, so it’s only natural that where I come from is part of the narrative,” says the artist. “The people and the characters are always the priority. More often than not it’s about letting the colour speak.” For Yamusangie, jazz clubs and minimal spaces offer ways to explore an expansive range of emotions. “We make many choices in life because of design, consciously or not. I make my art for myself, so I don’t have any desire to be accepted, I just want to be able to tell my own story through visuals and express myself.” The art world’s post-Covid fascination with Black figuration has been a polarising subject, and Yamusangie’s divestment from the politicisation of their work could itself be framed as emancipatory.