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Shakka Dedi

Born, 1954 in USA

Born in the US, and given the name Melvyn Mykeal Wellington by his parents, and eventualy changing his name to the more Afrocentric Shakka Gyata Dedi, he was a British poet, graphic designer, artist, and the first director of The Black-Art Gallery in North London. Dedi was one of the founders of the project responsible for establishing and running the gallery - OBAALA - the Organisation for Black Arts Advancement and Leisure Activities. Subsequently, the world ‘Learning’ replaced the word ‘Leisure’. Under his directorship, a significant number of Black artists had their first London solo exhibitions, which came with catalogues, posters, opening view cards, press releases and so on. In that regard, the gallery did much to present the work of a wide range of artists of African background and origin in a professional environment. Early exhibitions included ones by Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers, Donald Rodney, Sonia Boyce, and others.

A passionate believer in the potential of ‘Black Art’ to be a driving, guiding and illuminating force in the lives and destiny of Black (African, or Afrikan) peoples, Shakka Dedi and his colleagues created one of the first British manifestos of Black Art, which appeared in the catalogues accompanying several early exhibitions at The Black-Art Gallery, beginning with Heart in Exile, the gallery’s opening exhibition in the autumn of 1983.

From this point onwards, for the next six years, The Black-Art Gallery was in a position to impact on the ongoing debate about the nature, relevance and validity of ‘Black Art’ in Britain. OBAALA’s view of Black art was to some extent a reworking of the Black art manifestos offered ten to fifteen years earlier by the African American poets and prophets. “We believe that Black art is born of a consciousness based upon experience of what it means to be an Afrikan descendant wherever in the world we are. ‘Black’ in our context means all those of Afrikan descent. ‘Art’; the creative expression of the Black person or group based on historical or contemporary experiences. Black-Art should provide an historical document of local and international Black experience. It should educate by perpetuating traditional art forms to suit new experiences and environments. It is essential that Black artists aim to make their art ‘popular’ - that is an expression that the whole community can recognise and understand”. (1)

The OBAALA manifesto continued “we also believe that artistic creativity should extend itself to functional and common usage artefacts (e.g. Household furniture and artefacts). Overall honesty should be the mark of Black-Art, Therefore it cannot afford to be elitist or pretentious. We believe that Black-Art can, should and will play a very important role in community education and positive development, and that it is by having their work recognised by the general community that Black artists draw their strength. OBAALA exists therefore, to stimulate and implement discussion and activity which will bring about the desired close relationship between consciousness, art and positive community development.” (2)

One of the ways in which OBAALA strove to maintain what it considered to be a clear position was in the naming of the gallery. Whilst some artists and activists were starting to shy away from the term ‘Black Art’, OBAALA mounted a spirited defence of the term by calling their gallery space “The Black-Art Gallery’. This was not meant to be just a ‘Black’ gallery. It was meant to be a unique exhibition space, dedicated to the promotion of ‘Black-Art’. Capital B, hyphen, capital A. The gallery refused to use or recognise any variation of this. The first exhibition organised and presented at The Black-Art Gallery was Heart in Exile which featured the work of 22 artists. Every one of them was of African-Caribbean origin. For almost a decade, the gallery maintained its ‘Afrikan-Caribbean’ position and no other artists were exhibited there. Non-figurative or abstract painting was conspicuously absent from the gallery exhibition programme, because such work could be seen as being “elitist or pretentious”.

Like many other exhibition spaces, The Black-Art Gallery was not without its critics and detractors. Nevertheless it established a reputation for showing a variety of interesting work, closely allied to the essentialist ‘Black-Art’ manifesto of the gallery and its director. Shakka Dedi had studied graphic design at Canterbury College of Art and was continuing to work as a graphic designer of film posters, record sleeves, and so on. In seeking to publicise the gallery’s exhibitions, Dedi brought into play his graphic design skills, serving his core belief that the work of the Black artist should at all times seek to educate (in the widest sense of the word), inform and strengthen the political and cultural identities of ‘Pan-Afrikan’ peoples. During his tenure, Dedi placed great emphasis on the exhibition poster, seeing it as not just a publicity tool, but a piece of work in its own right, embracing and reflecting his beloved principles of Black-Art. Dedi wanted his gallery’s exhibition posters to have a life of their own. Such was the success of his posters that it could, perhaps unkindly, be said that some of them were more successful than the exhibitions they sought to promote. He frequently designed the posters himself. But on occasion, he was happy for the artists themselves to take charge of this work.

In 1982 he released a collection of his poems and illustrations, Afrikan Hartbeet: Songs of Unity, Love and Struggle. As a published and performing poet, Dedi was one of a number of Black British poets to emerge in the early 1980s, in the wake of the pioneering ‘dub poet’ Linton Kwesi Johnson. Dedi’s contemporaries included the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah, Amon Saba Sakana, Frederick Smith, and Anum Iyapo, who, like Dedi, was also a visual artist.

Shakka Dedi worked as Assistant Art Director on Menelik Shabazz’s film, Burning an Illusion, a film in which he had a brief, non-speaking role. Dedi also worked on Shabazz’s film Time and Judgement. Following his departure from The Black-Art Gallery, Shakka Dedi ceased his involvement in the visual arts. However, in the development of Black artists’ practice in London in the 1980s, Shakka Dedi’s contributions remain substantial and of huge importance.

Link to a portrait of a very young Shakka Dedi, in the early 1980s, with one of his own pieces: www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/3982887853/in/photostream/

(1) A Statement on Black Art and the Gallery. OBAALA Committee. Contained in Heart in Exile catalogue. p.4

(2) A Statement on Black Art and the Gallery. OBAALA Committee. Contained in Heart in Exile catalogue. p.4

Related items

click to show details of Heart in Exile

»  Heart in Exile

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1983

click to show details of Rich threads in a bleak tapestry

»  Rich threads in a bleak tapestry

Article relating to a gallery, 1987

click to show details of Shakka Dedi: Master Rasta - Observer magazine

»  Shakka Dedi: Master Rasta - Observer magazine

Article relating to an individual, 1981

Related exhibitions

»  Heart in Exile

Group show at The Black-Art Gallery. 1983

Related venues

»  The Black-Art Gallery

London, United Kingdom