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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 Black-Art should provide an historical document of local and international Black experience.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

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»  Heart in Exile

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1983

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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

Heart in Exile

Group show at The Black-Art Gallery. 1983
Date: 3 September, 1983
Curator: Shakka Dedi
Organiser: The Black-Art Gallery

The first exhibition organised and presented at The Black-Art Gallery was Heart in Exile which featured the work of 22 artists, all of them were of African-Caribbean background. Many were based in London, but a significant number were drawn from towns and cities across the country. The artists included Marlene Smith, who would, some years later, go on to replace The Black-Art Gallery’s first director, Shakka Dedi.

Heart in Exile featured work by Tyrone Bravo, Vanley Burke, Pogus Caesar, Dee Casco, Eddie Chambers, Adrian Compton, Shakka Dedi, Olive Desnoes, Terry Dyer, Carl Gabriel, Funsani Gentiles, Anum Iyapo, George Kelly, Cherry Lawrence, Ossie Murray, Pitika Ntuli, Joseph Olubu, Keith Piper, Barry Simpson, Marlene Smith, Wayne Tenyue and someone going under the name ‘Woodpecker’. 4 September - 2 October 1983.

Like a number of large-scale exhibitions of Black artists in the 1980s, Heart in Exile featured a number of artists who were perhaps less well-known than some of their exhibiting colleagues. In that sense, such exhibitions represented valuable opportunities for certain artists to have their work receive wider exposure, as much as such exhibitions represented equally valuable opportunities for gallery audiences to see a wide cross section of work produced by a range of artists.

Related items

click to show details of Heart in Exile

»  Heart in Exile

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1983

People in this exhibition + view all 21

»  Vanley Burke

Born, 1951 in Jamaica

»  Eddie Chambers

Born, 1960 in Wolverhampton, England

»  George Fowokan Kelly

Born, 1938 - 1948 (probably 1943) in Kingston, Jamaica

»  Keith Piper

Born, 1960 in Malta

Exhibition venues

»  The Black-Art Gallery

London, United Kingdom

Past Imperfect Future Tense

Solo show at The Black-Art Gallery. 1984
Date: 7 June, 1984 until 22 July, 1984
Curator: Shakka Dedi
Organiser: The Black-Art Gallery

First solo exhibition by Keith Piper, held at The Black-Art Gallery, London, which had opened in the autumn of the previous year. From the exhibition publicity: “At the age of 23, Keith Piper is a member of the latest wave of emerging Black visual artists committed to the belief that their work should respond to the social and political realities of the Black condition. More specifically, he is one of a small group who - in an attempt to discover a more relevant and responsive role for their work - overtly rebelled against the eurocentric aesthetic individualism favoured within the various art schools they attended. Teaming up in 1981, in what was to become ‘THE BLK ART GROUP’, they operated as a fluctuating line up of young Black artists…”

Publicity material for the exhibition also featured a quote from Piper himself. “My work is principally concerned with politics - a fact for which I can make no apologies, as the very existence of Black people in this, the founding fatherland of imperialism - is political. Dominated as it is by forces cultural, historical, economic and social which have shaped us, but have not been shaped by us.”

The exhibition was typical of Piper’s work at the time. Bold, striking mixed media work characterised by a dynamic drawing style and a resourceful, considered use of assorted materials. The exhibition catalogue, poster and Private View card for the exhibition featured a montage of the infamous plan of a slave ship, the Brookes of Liverpool, contrasted with a repeated image of a South African schoolboy caught up in the Soweto uprisings of mid 1970s South Africa. The exhibition, and its attendant publicity was reflective of Piper’s original approach to visual art, and his profound ability to creatively, convincingly and engagingly cite international and historical influences in his work.

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click to show details of Past Imperfect Future Tense Private View card

»  Past Imperfect Future Tense Private View card

Invite relating to an exhibition, 1984

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»  Keith Piper

Born, 1960 in Malta

Exhibition venues

»  The Black-Art Gallery

London, United Kingdom