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As we look at the art world we wonder if we, as human beings, are truly represented by the artworks created by contemporary artists, if in some way, world’s changes are reflected in the way they operate. This year, the Turner Art Prize has selected a shortlist consisting only of artist collectives who have worked closely with communities all across the UK in order to inspire social changes. In addition, the decision of selecting collectives, mirrors the trend and the need of acting together in order to cope and deal with Covid-19 pandemic and its implications.
Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S.) is one of the shortlisted collectives: a group of 18 London-based artists formed during the summer of 2018. B.O.S.S. follows the heritage of sound system culture with the scope of bringing together a community of queer, trans, and non-binary Black and people of colour involved in art, sound and radical activism. Rooted in their interest in sound systems, they consider the speakers as a sacred totem able to create a holy space, where one can be moved and experience collective pleasure and healing.
The group organises disco nights, creates installations and makes their sound system available for rent and use by community groups. Currently, an audiovisual installation called The only good system is a sound system (2021), made in collaboration with the artist Zheng Bo, is on display at the Liverpool Biennial. Commissioned by the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) of Liverpool, the installation is an extension of a short film project called A Collective Hum (2019) made for LUX & the ICO (Independent Cinema Office), two arts and cinema agencies, which aims at creating an enthralling environment, combining film, light, sound-score and sculpture. The installation thinks over the ways in which marginalised groups have developed methods of joining hands against a climate of repression and discrimination in the UK. Black Obsidian Sound System places sound culture as a space of collective strength in order to suggest ways of coming together that go beyond our experience as individual human beings.
Even though the group have acknowledged to be grateful for the recognition of their work as a collective by the premier British Internationally recognised award, some days after having received the nomination, they have called out the institutions’ hypocrisy and their exploitative practices. By doing so, the group decided to take a stand, to use their power as shortlisted artists’ to point out what is wrong with art institutions and, at the same time, use the Turner Prize media relevance to bring community struggles and their artistic practices to the big screen.
They write: “Whilst we are grateful for the recognition for our work as a collective, it is important for us to name some of the inconsistencies as we observe them.” They continue by saying: “We understand that we are being instrumentalised in this moment. We ask ourselves: how can a BPOC queer collective of artists and cultural workers be nominated for the Turner Prize whilst Black women artists continue to be silenced?…It is crucial that we acknowledge the context from which our participation emerges. We demand the right to thrive in conditions that are nurturing and supportive.”
The group talks about the Tate’s alleged censorship of the Black artist Jane Montserrat in 2017 and accuses the Tate of poorly managing the allegations of sexual harassment made against the dealer and collector Anthony D’Offay, who was a major patron of the museum from 1997 to 2004 and was publicly accused by Montserrat of racist, sexual and inappropriate behavior. Finally, the group’s statement criticises and talks about the struggles of Tate’s workers during the strike of the pandemic, which involved the cutting off of 313 jobs within the commercial arm of Tate Entreprises (TEL).
Such actions carried out by artists, who find themselves in places where they can let their voice be heard, are what make artistic practices, artists and art in general relevant to communities and social change. In an ever-changing world like the one we are living in today, art is not just mere art but it is the consequence of the context where it is created and it represents the context where it wants to be recognised as such. Black Obsidian Sound System, with its artworks inspires change and reminds us of the strength that comes from human cooperation. At the same time, the group fearlessly points out the issues inherent to big art institutions, exploiting their channel to spread their own ideas and demonstrating their ideological positions.
We can think that Tate’s move of shortlisting only artist collective who have worked closely with UK’s communities is a mean of finding redemption but we should also appreciate the wave of inclusiveness, good vibes and novelty that B.O.S.S. and the other candidates propose to us.
While we wait for the winner of the Turner Art Prize to be announced, I strongly invite you to listen to the Black Obsidian Sound System’s Soundcloud using this link: https://soundcloud.com/blackobsidiansoundsystem
B.O.S.S public statement regarding the 2021 Turner prize nomination