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Tony Phillips

Born, 1952 in Liverpool, UK

Tony Phillips, a painter and printmaker, was born in Liverpool in 1952, making him significantly older than most other British-born artists of African, Caribbean or South Asian background. He studied Mural Design at Lancaster Art College, Preston and was for many years living and working near Shrewsbury, Shropshire, moving there in 1978. His work “ which is figurative “ reflects a unique and proficient drawing style. He takes as his subjects episodes from history, the built environment, and the ways in which people live, work, and grow. Some of his work could perhaps be described as reportage, or even documentary, but such adjectives do not reference the intelligent, probing and analytical nature of his work. Throughout his work there also exists a marked and often humourous element of the surreal. This is particularly so in that work by Phillips that draws our attention to the vagaries of human interaction. In the words of one source, Phillips “explores various themes, including consumerism, capitalism, the dislocation of the human from nature, the nude, history and the passage of time, methods to define history in a visual manner and the role of the individual in society.” (1)

In the mid 1980s, Phillips produced a wonderful, panoramic document that catalogued, interpreted and drew attention to the ramifications arising out of the looting, by the British Punitive Expedition in 1897, of the Benin Bronzes. The series, titled “History of the Benin Bronzes’ comprised nine pastel drawings, each one 32” x 24”. The titles of each drawing give graphic pointers to the depth and breadth of Phillips’ interpretations and illustrations of the sacking and looting of this illustrious West African kingdom. 1. The Artist with his work, 2. Ododua Dance, 3. Benin City, 4. Punitive Expedition 1897, 5. Leaving Benin, 6. The Auction, 7. Face to Face, 8. Subduing the People, 9. Extolling their Art.

Benin Bronzes are universally perceived as exemplary signifiers of the skill, beauty, depth and craftsmanship of the people of Africa. From those with just a passing interest or vague familiarity with African art, through to those seeking affirmation of the continent’s past glories, the Benin Bronzes occupy a special place. But within books, within the museum and within the marketplace, Benin Bronzes are almost inevitably decontextualised, or, placed outside of their rightful contexts. Phillips’ drawings sought to counter this injustice of decontextualisation. The drawings begin with a study of artist working on what has become one of the most recognisable of the bronzes, Queen Mother Iyoba, who gave birth to the future king, the Oba. Here, Phillips’ represents the craftsman in a profoundly empathetic way, as a uniquely talented artist, countering the generic perception so often evoked within studies of African art. Likewise, Phillips locates the making of the work within the context of a thriving, highly functional city-state, bountiful in its art, culture, dance, architecture, and society.

Time and time again, within this series, Phillips not only deconstructs prevailing pathologies and orthodoxies regarding the ways in which African art is regarded; he also provides critical, provocative contexts for us to consider. These narratives lead Phillips to conclude his series with the unanswerable assertion that the celebration, or even the fetishisation of the Benin Bronzes in particular, and African art in general speaks of a simultaneous brutalising and subduing of African people themselves, even as their artefacts are crammed in to the leading museums and auction houses of the world. Phillips’ History of the Benin Bronzes exists as both a series of pastel drawings, and also an enlarged series (in quantity) of smaller (in size) etchings, produced in 1984 and held in the Collection of Sheffield City Art Galleries.

In late 2006 (18 September to 15 December) Phillips had a retrospective at The University of Liverpool. It presented an overview of his paintings, drawings and prints, as part of the Independent Programme of the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art. The exhibition covered the period from the early 1970s, when Phillips graduated from art school in Preston, through to work produced very recently.

History is a particularly pronounced theme within his work. Or perhaps more accurately, the ways in which history unfolds, or unravels. For Four x 4, in 1991, he contributed an epic, ongoing work, titled The History of the 20th Century. It consisted of chronologically presented small square paintings, each depicting an episode, or a moment, in 20th century world history. It is Phillips’ ability to present history as a living, breathing, dynamic, and above all interlocking series of events that make him such an important teller of visual stories.


For the past several years, Phillips has divided his time between London and Italy. A prolific artist, he continues to secure substantial exhibitions in a range of venues.

(1) www.liv.ac.uk/artgall/exhibitions/exhibition_archive/Tony_Phillips.htm (14 October 2009)

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click to show details of History and Identity | Seven Painters

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Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1991

click to show details of In Black and White: Prints from Africa and the Diaspora

»  In Black and White: Prints from Africa and the Diaspora

Book relating to a publication, 2013

click to show details of Shocks to the System

»  Shocks to the System

Article relating to an exhibition, 1991

click to show details of Shocks to the System - catalogue

»  Shocks to the System - catalogue

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1991

click to show details of Transforming the Crown

»  Transforming the Crown

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1997

Related exhibitions

Related venues + view all 17

»  Arnolfini

Bristol, United Kingdom

»  Castle Museum

Nottingham, United Kingdom

»  City Gallery Leicester

Leicester, United Kingdom

»  Lincolnshire College of Art and Design

Lincoln, United Kingdom

»  Norwich Gallery

Norwich, United Kingdom