Black art is too good to be a fad

    If you keep an eye on contemporary art, or even half an eye, you will have noticed that black art is all the rage.

    At the National Portrait Gallery, The Time Is Always Now looks at how black artists are “reframing” the black figure. At the Royal Academy, Entangled Pasts, 1768-Now mixes up historic art with ruminations on colonialism by a clutch of contemporary black witnesses. At the National Gallery, the artists short-listed for the next Fourth Plinth commission are predominantly black. At this year’s version of the world’s most prestigious art show, the Venice Biennale, Britain is represented by the veteran black film-maker John Akomfrah. At the last Biennale, we were represented by the veteran black installation artist Sonia Boyce. Black art, it’s fair to say, is everywhere.

    Knowing the art world as I do, this strikes me as a dangerous situation. Not because black art does not deserve such blanket coverage — it does, for reasons we will touch on. The danger is that having surfeited on big helpings of black aesthetics, the fickle, fashionable, trite, white art world will be moving on to the next craze as soon as it can: black art, tick. Next please.

    I fretted about this as I wandered through Soulscapes at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, yet another survey of contemporary black art, which looks, this time, at the way black artists have responded to the landscape. It’s a flawed show, with several duds and some awkward curation. But its value lies in the sheer tangibility of the difference it records between the way white artists have viewed the landscape, and how black artists see it.

    In this show the landscape is rarely in the distance, far away, over there, in the way it usually is for white artists. There’s none of Turner’s sublime awe in front of a looming mountain, or Friedrich’s sense of destiny as he looks down on a stretching valley. At this event, in the art of Michaela Yearwood-Dan or Alain Joséphine, Marcia Michael or Ravelle Pillay, the landscape pushes up against your nose: it’s an enclosure, a surrounding, a circle of vegetation that blocks the view.

    Thus Hurvin Anderson’s scene of a tropical home surrounded by jungle is a study in enveloping greenness in which the thin white strip of a veranda is being overwhelmed by layer after layer of encroaching garden. Christina Kimeze’s hazy and beautiful peep at a pregnant woman taking an evening bath in a jungle pool feels as if we are spying on her through a leafy foreground of overhanging trees.

    I will leave it to Sigmund Freud and his offspring to understand the psychology of this claustrophobic sense (for me) of being enveloped by the landscape — the jungle as your womb. What counts aesthetically is that’s it’s so tangibly different from the traditional “picture window” vision of somewhere far away favoured by white artists. One vision is about coming from somewhere. The other is about yearning for somewhere.

    The show is thoughtful enough to include exceptions to this aesthetic rule, a selection of sea views in which issues of slavery and departure are raised (although perhaps accidentally). With so many of the landscapes here being so close, so enveloping, the sea views feel like something glimpsed through a gap in the trees.

    The Portuguese photographer Mónica de Miranda shows us three black figures, dressed in vaguely “colonial” costume, standing stock still in the water as the huge ocean behind them laps around their legs. The ocean feels free. The figures don’t.

    In one of the show’s highlights, Phoebe Boswell presents a moody vertical video, set in the wall like a stained glass window, in which a gorgeous Zanzibar beach at sunset is animated and populated by tiny local figures walking, cycling, playing football, having fun. In a show that is consistently about belonging somewhere else, this beautiful beach is not a travel destination, but a home.

    Not all the art in the show deserves as much attention as it is getting. Black artists are just as capable of being average or poor as white artists. After several examples, the sense of enveloping jungle begins to feel repetitive. What remains true, what needs to be shouted, is that this is art doing what art should always be doing: telling stories, searching for beauty, framing memories, celebrating the visible. The lily-livered, over-curated, timid, wispy pretensions of white conceptualism are being kicked in the pants! Hurrah. Black art, we needed you.

    At the Niru Ratnam gallery, recently relocated to an airy space on Great Portland Street in Fitzrovia, central London, Kimathi Donkor, one of the best exhibitors in Soulscapes, has a solo show that is only marginally about landscapes. Chiefly, it’s about the black figure and its betrayed colonial history. In a series of large, figurative paintings, Donkor presents us with things he cannot have seen, but which he can and does imagine.

    A couple are memories of police violence. Jean Charles de Menezes Borne Aloft by Joy Gardner and Stephen Lawrence is a modern pietà in which the slumped body of the Brazilian mistakenly killed by Met officers after the London bombings of 2005 is carried to heaven by two famous victims of racial injustice. The Death of Clinton McCurbin remembers a man who died while being arrested in Wolverhampton in 1987.

    As a genre, history painting has remembrance and societal education as its chief objectives. Donkor adds unexpected lyricism and delicacy to the mix.

    Soulscapes is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, until Jun 2; Kimathi Donkor is at Niru Ratnam, London W1, until Apr 20