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Tam Joseph

Born, 1947 in Dominica

image of Tam Joseph

Tam Joseph was born in Dominica, in the Caribbean, in 1947. He came to London at the age of eight, eventually going on to fractious, unsatisfactory periods of study at London art colleges in the late 1960s. He has, since the end of that decade, maintained and developed his practice as a visual artist and sometime sculptor.

This makes him, on the one hand, too young to be linked to major figures of Caribbean and African art who made London their home in the decades immediately following the end of World War Two. For example, Ronald Moody had been born in 1900, Aubrey Williams had been born in 1926, Frank Bowling had been born in 1936 and Uzo Egonu had been born in 1931. In time, these artists came to be respected as elder statesmen, but Tam Joseph was too young to be included in their number. But Joseph’s age, on the other hand, makes him too old to be properly linked to the fiery, boisterous young Black artists, typified by Keith Piper (born 1960) and Donald Rodney (born 1961) whose brand of ‘Black Art’ descended like a whirlwind on Britain in the early 1980s. Quite possibly, it is for this reason that Tam Joseph is very much his own man, his own painter.

The other reason for Joseph’s uniqueness is that he stubbornly refuses to be typecast or pigeon-holed. He considers nothing to be above or beyond his cutting, witty and sometimes cynical observation. And once a subject has caught his eye, it cannot escape his canvas. Attempts have been made to link him to the 1980s Black Art movement, but Joseph calmly distances himself and his work from such a neatly identifiable arena. Joseph’s position on himself and his practice is typified by his insistence that “I wasn’t trying to develop a distinctly Black art. I was trying to develop myself as a person, through my art, and that’s what I’ve been tying to do all the time.” As an artist, Tam Joseph does not limit or restrict himself. He refuses to be perceived and used solely as a social commentator or political representative of his race. He draws his subject matter from wherever he chooses, and he executes his ideas in whatever medium seems appropriate to him.

Nevertheless we should be clear and understand that in his time, Tam Joseph has contributed a number of memorable paintings that locate themselves at the centre of sociopolitical commentary, often making work that shocks as it amuses, amuses as it shocks. Typical in this regard are paintings for which Joseph is universally loved and respected, such as Spirit of the Carnival and UK School Report. The latter piece, sub-divided into three portraits, shows the passage of a Black youngster through the British non-education system. In the first portrait, the neat and tidy lad is ‘good at sports’. In the second portrait, the best that his teachers can say about him is that he ‘likes music’. The third is inevitable: a few years of under-achievement at school have put him on the ‘other’ side of society and he ‘needs surveillance’.

A more recent body of Joseph’s work indicates another one of his unpredictable shifts in artistic direction. The work in question was collectively titled Great White, described by Hiroko Hagiwara as “a series of picturesque and illusory landscapes, which induce us to quiet reflection” that signals a “move towards a more contemplative body of work”. Hagiwara notes that “it may seem odd that an artist of Afro-Caribbean origin, should paint [sea]scapes of blue water and white shining icebergs”. In truth, Joseph has always struck out on his own course. But witty takes on Black ‘problems’ or Black ‘issues’ continue to be the most engaging aspect of Joseph’s practice. White House Killings is a recent painting that recasts the traditional tourists’ map of Washington DC. Peppered throughout the NW, NE, SE and SW quarters of the capital, literally surrounding the White House, are dozens of tiny figure motifs. It is only when we look closer, and reference the figure motifs that we realise each one represents the ‘Location of killings in 1991’.

Another of Joseph’s paintings from the early 1990s is Under the Sea, a work that references slavery. Perhaps the great success of this painting is that, on first encounter, it makes no direct or explicit reference to slavery. It is instead, at first glances at least, a well-executed seascape. But water is of course as powerful a metaphor of slavery as the slave ship. Water was the means by which captured Africans were transported. The means by which slaves chose to end their suffering by committing suicide, jumping overboard. But water (and for that matter, the slave ship) is also a metaphor for redemption, salvation, survival, rebirth. For people of the African diaspora, the spiritual, the healing qualities of water are deeply cherished. Tam Joseph’s work pays homage to those who have died in great violence; those thrown overboard as well as those who chose to jump overboard. And yet, alongside this description of great violence is a profound sense of baptism by total immersion: redemption, salvation, and above all, survival. But not just survive, but the flourishing of creativity.

Joseph, whilst championing artistic independence, never forgets he is a African. His African-ness is the starting point for his work. From there, he can move in any direction he wants. As Joseph himself says “I use total experience. I use every bit of what I see; almost every bit of what I know, to bring out something, but it’s not coming from just one experience.”

Tam Joseph’s work was included in the From Two Worlds exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery, 30 July - 7 September 1986. Surprisingly perhaps, Joseph’s work was not included in Transforming the Crown, but a reproduction of his Learning to Walk (1988) appeared in Mora Beauchamp-Byrd’s essay London Bridge: Late Twentieth Century British Art and the Routes of ‘National Culture’ in the catalogue for Transforming the Crown.

One of Tam Joseph’s painting’s, Native Girl With Fetish, is reproduced in Gen Doy’s Black Visual Culture, I.B. Tauris, 2000.

His website is www.tamjosephartlive.com/

Related items + view all 21

click to show details of The Image Employed

»  The Image Employed

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1987

click to show details of Tam Joseph: This is History - catalogue

»  Tam Joseph: This is History - catalogue

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1998

click to show details of Transforming the Crown

»  Transforming the Crown

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1997

click to show details of Us an’ Dem (Us and Them) - press release

»  Us an’ Dem (Us and Them) - press release

Press release relating to an exhibition, 1994

click to show details of Us an’ Dem boxed catalogue

»  Us an’ Dem boxed catalogue

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1994

Related exhibitions + view all 8

»  The Image Employed

Group show at Cornerhouse. 1987

»  Us an’ Dem

Group show at The Storey Institute. 1994

Related venues + view all 17

»  Cornerhouse

Manchester, United Kingdom

»  Ikon Gallery

Birmingham, United Kingdom

»  Maclaurin Art Gallery

Ayr, United Kingdom

»  Northern Centre for Contemporary Art

Sunderland, United Kingdom

»  The Storey Institute

Lancaster, United Kingdom