Skip to main content Start of main content

Iniva: Everything Crash

In light of Iniva’s current crisis, Eddie Chambers looks back at the Black activism that led to its foundation in the 1990s.
Poster for the exhibition ‘Into the Open: New paintings, prints and sculptures by contemporary Black artists’, Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, 1984, curated by Lubaina Himid and Pogus Caesar. Courtesy Museums Sheffield

It is now well known that the Institute of International Visual Arts — one of Arts Council England’s flagship initiatives, more commonly known by its acronym Iniva — has become mired in a protracted and seemingly fatal combination of budgetary, structural and, perhaps most importantly, ideological difficulties. 01 Details of Iniva’s problems make for uncomfortable reading, though, sadly, arts initiatives launched with much fanfare and running into chronic difficulties relatively shortly thereafter are indeed a now-familiar occurrence. This text has as its concern Iniva’s ideological framing and the ways in which the tensions, contradictions and flaws that lay behind its stated agenda of ‘internationalism’ have come to be exposed like open wounds or compound fractures.

Iniva’s origins in the early 1990s can be traced back to the pronounced emergence of Black British artists in 1980s Britain. (For the purposes of this text, ‘Black British artists’ 
is taken to refer to British-born, British-raised or British-based artists whose backgrounds lie in the continents and regions of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.) The 1980s were, relatively speaking, years of unprecedented activity for Black artists in Britain. Previous decades, going back to the 1960s, had seen a number of important visual arts contributions at certain, mostly London-based galleries by artists who had come to Britain in the early
to mid-twentieth century, often from countries belonging to the former British Empire. These included Grabowski Gallery (1959–75), which was attached to a pharmacy on Sloane Avenue in Chelsea and showed artists such as Frank Bowling and Aubrey Williams in solo exhibitions and, equally importantly, in mixed group shows, particularly in the early 1960s. Elsewhere in London, other pioneering spaces
— including Gallery One (1953–63), founded by poet and dealer Victor Musgrave; New Vision Centre (1956–66), co-founded and directed by South African painter Denis Bowen; and Signals (1964–66), co-founded by Filipino artist David Medalla — opened their doors to Commonwealth and other international artists, and were instrumental in setting up global networks of artistic exchange.

The 1980s, however, produced a new generation of artists, for the most part British-born; the majority were, or were to become, art school graduates. As such, they presented themselves as an intriguing and confident new presence within the art scene, manifested in a number of group exhibitions held throughout Britain. The earliest exhibitions signalling this new presence were initiated by art students such as Keith Piper and, in time, 
Marlene Smith and Donald Rodney. Exhibitions such as ‘Black Art an’ done’, held at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in 1981, unequivocally sought to assert the tangible notion of a ‘Black art’ that existed to respond to the realities of the lives, challenges and struggles of Black people, at home and abroad. 02

Up until the 1970s, with exceptions limited to occasional contributions from artists such as Bowling or Anish Kapoor, ‘British Art’ had been, by and large, taken to be the preserve of white, overwhelmingly male artists. But by the mid-1980s, Black artists appeared to have built up a formidable head of steam, moving on from self-initiated exhibitions to celebrated ones at high-profile London galleries, whether the Institute
 of Contemporary Arts (ICA) or the Whitechapel Gallery. Whilst unprecedented, their emergence into such institutional spaces was not without problems since they tended to be shown in insistent proximity to raced audiences, funding and programming. For instance, 1985 saw ‘The Thin Black Line’ at the ICA, a group exhibition organised and selected
by Lubaina Himid and featuring the work of eleven Black women artists; their work
 was primarily displayed in the concourse area of the building, hence the ‘thin black line’ of the title, which, according to Himid, was meant ‘to illustrate that there was not enough room for the amount of visual endeavour being produced’.03 Though it was reviewed in the mainstream media as ‘angry’, in reality the exhibition attempted to present a multiplicity of experiences through a variety of media, bringing together a survey of Black women’s creativity at that time. Sadly, however, ‘The Thin Black Line’ only came about after the Greater London Council ‘had threatened to withdraw its considerable contribution to
 the ICA if something black did not appear in that financial year.’ As Himid makes clear, though, this wasn’t an isolated case: in the 1980s and early 90s ‘extra money was given to established galleries if they wanted to stage black exhibitions. No questions were asked of them! It was a way of getting money into the coffers.’04 The following year, the Whitechapel Gallery hosted ‘From Two Worlds: Sixteen Artists of Non-European Background’, an exhibition initiated by Nicholas Serota and Gavin Jantjes that included practitioners such as Piper, Rasheed Araeen, Zarina Bhimji, the Black Audio Film Collective and Sonia Boyce.05 ‘From Two Worlds’ was the most substantial exhibition of Black artists’ work to be held at a major London gallery until ‘The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain’,06 Araeen’s groundbreaking curatorial venture of 1989. At the same time, however, in grouping artists on the sole basis of their being non-white,‘From Two Worlds’ and like-minded exhibitions inadvertently contributed to the skewed exposure of Black artists in the 1980s, which in effect meant that, as individual practitioners, these artists were being kept at arm’s length by many of London’s leading galleries.

Though to a lesser extent other funders played a part, the Arts Council funded much of this bold, brassy and new activity, on something of a piecemeal basis. Though continuing to encounter notable resistance or indifference, Black artists of the 1980s looked to be tearing up the ‘British art’ script. In this endeavour, artists were aided by their own cogent, insistent voices, as well as those of activists and advocates such as Araeen and Jantjes, who were calling for greater recognition of changes and developments that they felt had long been taking place in British art but were only latterly gaining halting recognition. Jantjes asserted that Black British artists represented a hitherto largely unacknowledged yet compelling fusion of experiences, histories, sensibilities and identities that meant there were many reasons why their work should be taken seriously and institutional support 
for them provided with more certainty and commitment. 07 Araeen, meanwhile, had, for a number of years, been arguing that Black artists’ work needed to be viewed and engaged with through mechanisms radically different to the dominant framings. In his writings and activism, he sought to offer a profoundly different interpretation of Black artists’ contributions to art history and the contemporary art scene, whilst simultaneously taking to task what he regarded as the art world’s discriminatory pathologies.08 Further, he contended that culturally ingrained prejudices on the part of the art establishment prevented Black artists from taking up rightful positions within the mainstream of British art, and that the pronounced institutional gravitation towards seeing Black artists’ work as ‘ethnic arts’ did a grave disservice to the most accomplished amongst these practitioners.

Notwithstanding Araeen’s continued accusations of cultural obstinacy on the part
 of the Arts Council, senior figures within the organisation persuaded themselves of the need to formulate some sort of institutional bolstering of this new artistic activity.
 Thus, in time, the idea emerged of an ‘institute’ that was to be named, somewhat curiously, ‘of new international visual arts’. Perhaps with an organisation such as Artangel as its blueprint, Iniva was, in the first instance, envisaged not as a gallery-centred initiative but as an altogether more curatorially and philosophically agile entity, with a focus on discursive and expansive programming, to be executed in collaboration with a range of partners
 and supplementary funders.

This conception of Iniva as an institute without its own gallery was fundamental 
to its early identity, which was formed through a layered series of overlapping phases.
 The first, undertaken in the early 1990s, comprised research, consultation and development work initiated by Jantjes together with Sarah Wason of the Arts Council’s Art Department. The second phase involved activity generated by ‘franchises’: a publishing one (allocated 
to Araeen) and two for exhibitions (allocated to Sunil Gupta and myself). Araeen brought several publications into existence through his Kala Press operation, whilst Gupta channelled a range of curatorial activities through his Organisation for the Visual Arts (OVA). For my part, I curated a number of shows for galleries around the country during the mid-1990s. The idea of these franchises was to give Iniva something of a public
 face while the development work of making Iniva an art world reality was undertaken. With the appointment of Gilane Tawadros in 1994 as the project’s first director, Iniva entered its third phase of development, during which Tawadros headed a team based in independent offices in central London, very much setting its own programme of activity. Iniva at this time had no explicit relationship with considerations of class and gender,
 nor, perhaps most importantly, the notions of ‘diversity’ that were, within less than a decade, to take on decidedly hegemonic forms. Tawadros, by far Iniva’s most accomplished and successful director to date, undertook an adept balancing act between supporting British artists from a plurality of cultural backgrounds and making forays into the international arena.

Though its development had grown out of Black artists’ activity and activism, 
Iniva only ever declared its embrace of Black artists in the most furtive of ways.

Had Iniva remained a non-building-based project, articulated as a series of collaborations launched from its modest suite of offices, its history might well have taken a different course. In reality (particularly in the years following Tawadros’s departure in 2005), Iniva was unmistakably gravitating towards becoming a bricks-and-mortar entity. This was to have profound consequences. Drawn into the millennial, Blairite wisdom of bringing a plethora of new museums and galleries into existence, and the attendant rhetoric of a more cultured nation at peace with itself in the twenty-first century, Iniva became fixated on becoming a contemporary art gallery modelled upon existing public institutions. In 2007, together with Autograph ABP (the Association of Black Photographers),09 Iniva finally moved into its current premises at Rivington Place: a new building designed by David Adjaye in East London’s booming culture and tech quarter of Shoreditch.

Cover of Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, edited by Jean Fisher (Kala Press and Iniva, 1994).
Cover image: Eponce, Untitled, 1994, oil on canvas, 112 × 91.5cm. Courtesy the artist and Iniva

In appraising Iniva’s trajectory, it seemed that the Arts Council was now thinking 
in terms that amounted to separate development for Black artists — something with
 which seemingly few people had difficulty. Even fewer predicted the arguably disastrous consequences and implications of this, though Tawadros recalls that a clear sentiment arising out of Iniva’s early consultation meetings was the widely expressed view ‘Whatever you do, don’t build a Black art gallery’. 10 Despite the not insignificant costs associated with the establishment of Iniva, it was, frankly, infinitely easier for the Arts Council to disregard this plea than it was for it to address ingrained manifestations of cultural or racial intransigence within many of the galleries it funded. Therein lay the seeds of the Arts Council’s and, to a far greater extent, Iniva’s problems, both then and into the future.

An ominous forecast for Iniva could already be identified in a high-profile feature
 that appeared in The Independent in the summer of 1992. Written by the paper’s arts reporter, Dalya Alberge, the article presented Iniva as ‘a public gallery that aims to place “artists of colour” in a wider contemporary art context [and] to strengthen London’s position as the cultural capital of the world’. 11 The unasked, let alone unanswered question was this: why should London, the supposed ‘cultural capital of the world’ need a ‘public’ gallery to show Black artists’ work, when all across the capital (and indeed, the country) were galleries in receipt of substantial amounts of public funding that ought to be showing Black artists’ work as part of ongoing, integrated programming? According to Alberge,
 ‘In setting up Iniva, the intention was to move away from the mainstream and take a new look at society and the interplay of different cultures. Artists of all colours, including white, would be shown together.’ Why ‘artists of all colours, including white,’ could not be shown together within the existing gallery infrastructure was a question not addressed in the article, nor, it seems, anywhere else. Alberge continued:

The Institute of New International Visual Arts (Iniva) — inspired by post-War migration and the breaking-down of cultural boundaries — sets out to place artists from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia alongside their European and American peers. Although the council has, since 1987, supported ‘initiatives in cultural diversity’, it feels that they have not kept pace with the achievements of black artists in
the West. 12

Fatally for Iniva, at precisely the same time that the Arts Council was rolling out these plans, the art world was formulating what would, in time, become its own formidable strategy 
of placing work by ‘artists from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia alongside their European and American peers’. Put simply, it did this by unceremoniously bypassing artists of African, Caribbean or Asian origin born, brought up or living in the UK, and went straight to art and artists living in these regions or living elsewhere in the world and taken to be representative of these regions. One of the means by which the art world sought to diversify itself and its programmes was the ‘international’ exhibition. Much publicised exhibitions such as ‘Aratjara: Art of the First Australians: Traditional and Contemporary Works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists’, staged at the Hayward Gallery
in 1993, and ‘Art from South Africa’, staged at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford in 1990, were examples of this new manifestation of internationalism. These were decidedly liberal ventures, in which the curators (and by extension, exhibition audiences) sought to find common cause with put-upon constituencies in the international arena whilst leaving
 the dominant society’s pathologies untroubled and intact.

Consequently, Iniva became only one manifestation of ‘internationalism’, as pretty much every gallery with ambitions to maintain or expand its profile turned to the global arena as a means by which it could demonstrate artistic plurality. In this regard, Iniva inadvertently became something of a symbol of the sidelining of Black British artists. Though its development had grown out of the Arts Council’s response to Black artists’ activity and activism, Iniva only ever declared its embrace of Black artists in the
most furtive of ways. A raced space that presented itself and sought to function as an international space was always likely to be found wanting, particularly when it found itself competing with structurally more secure galleries that were likewise seeking to function as international spaces.

‘Internationalism’ was, in almost every respect, an already ambiguous notion
 that lent itself to a variety of meanings and interpretations. But as to what exactly ‘new internationalism’ was or might be, this was anyone’s guess. In conversation with Nikos Papastergiadis, Tawadros alluded with candour to Iniva’s struggle to articulate its mission: ‘I have problems with the term “new internationalism”. It is not an appropriate label to define the artistic or intellectual propositions of this organisation. It triggers memories
of nationalism and internationalism that presume another sort of utopian structure for wholeness and coherence.’ 13 Rather than regarding Iniva as a final destination, Tawadros, with a certain intellectual agility, saw it as a vehicle through which the concerns and questions of artists, curators and thinkers could be channelled, developing an ambitious discursive programme during her tenure.14  Speaking soon after Iniva’s first conference, 
‘A New Internationalism’, held at Tate Gallery, London in April 1994, Tawadros argued that Iniva was ‘about posing questions. For instance, the Iniva conference ended with
 a series of questions, no answers. I think that was right, that’s absolutely the tone of the organisation. Artists, to my mind, pose questions, they don’t provide answers.’15 In the autumn of that same year, the ‘new’ was mercifully dropped, in favour of the altogether more plausible Institute of International Visual Arts — though by this time, many of London’s galleries could in all honesty claim the same sort of identity. By the mid-1990s, not only had the international exhibition become an entrenched feature of the art world, it rapidly came to act as a stand-in for ‘diversity’, a term which had pretty much always been taken to refer to Black artists’ practice and Black culture.

To an extent, one needs to differentiate between the art world’s relationship to ‘internationalism’ and its relationship to ‘diversity’. Whilst the former now seems to be pretty much an embedded aspect of the visual arts, the latter is resisted and regarded as a byword for governmentally or state-enforced tinkering — very much to the detriment 
of society, quality and the settled order of things.16 In contrast, ‘internationalism’ exists 
as a godsend, for its ability to suggest ‘diversity’ while leaving intact pre-existing art world hierarchies of employment and curatorial programming. Artists from beyond the UK, over the course of the past two decades or more, have grown increasingly attractive to British curators and gallery directors keen to demonstrate ‘diversity’ within their gallery programmes but not particularly minded to work with Black British artists, who might
 in earlier times have represented and benefitted from such gestures.

A hegemonic homogeneity has emerged as the dominant characteristic of globalisation, it now being possible to see the same sorts of artists from one city to the next, from one country to another, as long as they are validated by Western European/US art establishment axes of power. For the want of perhaps more global perspectives, insularity and parochialism can take hold. However, the headlong rush to a skewed internationalism has left certain British artists as net losers rather than any sort of beneficiaries. With Iniva having to now chase the same sorts of internationalism as the major players in the London art world, 
it becomes an easy enough undertaking to appreciate the scale of the organisation’s current difficulties. In effect, Iniva has found itself wrong-footed or outflanked by the art world’s emphatic embrace of internationalism.

A small number of Black British artists, within a larger pool of British artists, have
 of course found fabulous success in the international arena, but it is difficult to avoid the somewhat dispiriting conclusion that internationalism (or particular manifestations thereof) has failed certain artists, no less than state-sponsored and cack-handed notions
 of diversity have likewise failed certain artists. The defining characteristic of the internationalism of which Iniva is now a part is the hierarchical blueprint of the hegemonic 
art world. There is within Iniva’s programming little or no conceding or transferring of curatorial power, thereby ensuring that hierarchies of power and privilege remain intact. Iniva has moved away from being a dynamic hub from which a variety of exhibitions, publications, residencies and other art projects were initiated, with a range of partners, and become a somewhat lumpen organisation, practising a dull top-down approach to its projects, with little to nothing in the way of lateral working relationships and collaborations. Iniva today is a crash of confusions, contradictions, rigid hierarchy and institutionally mandated cultural difference. It perhaps goes without saying that it has failed those for whom it was, in part at least, established.17


‘Everything Crash’ was a popular Jamaican reggae song by The Ethiopians, from 1968. The song bemoaned the political paralysis and widespread labour unrest occurring in Jamaica at the time. Most significantly, perhaps, it lamented the catastrophic floundering of the hopes and dreams
 of independence, which had been ushered in just a few years earlier. It reiterated sorrowfully
 the Jamaican proverb ‘What gone bad a mornin’ can’t come good a evenin’’ (in other words, if you start off wrong, you end up wrong). For many Jamaicans, by 1968, it seemed that everything crash. Though Iniva’s slide into difficulties has taken place over a timescale of several decades, it is now difficult to escape the sense that for Iniva, too, everything crash.


  • The latest and most notorious of these was the announcement, in July 2014, that the Arts Council England had decided to cut Iniva’s National Portfolio Organisation grant by 62.3% for the period 2015—18 (following a previous 43% slash in 2012—13). In contrast, the NPO organisation Autograph ABP (the Association of Black Photographers), saw its allocated budget almost doubled so that it 
could assume management of the building it shares with Iniva. See Morgan Quaintance, ‘Iniva: Fit for Purpose?’, Art Monthly, no.380, October 2014, pp.33—35; and Grant Watson, ‘Response to Morgan Quaintance’s “Iniva: Fit for Purpose?”’, Art Monthly, no.382, December 2014—January 2015, pp.14—15. Iniva’s director, Tessa Jackson, stepped down in May 2015.
  • ‘Black Art an’ done’, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 9—27 June 1981, with works by Dominic Dawes, Andrew Hazell, Ian Palmer, Keith Piper and myself. We organised the exhibition ourselves, as art students and young artists, with guidance from Eric Pemberton, a local schoolteacher who mentored our group.
  • Lubaina Himid, ‘Letters to Susan’, Thin Black Line(s): Tate Britain 2011/2012 (exh. cat.), Newcastle upon Tyne: University of Central Lancashire, 2011, pp.12—13. ‘The Thin Black Line’, Institute
 of Contemporary Arts, London, 15 November 1985—26 January 1986. Alongside Lubaina Himid,
 the exhibition included works by Brenda Agard, Sutapa Biswas, Sonia Boyce, Chila Kumari Burman, Jennifer Comrie, Claudette Johnson, Ingrid Pollard, Veronica Ryan, Marlene Smith and Maud Sulter.
  • Lubaina Himid, ‘Letters to Susan’, Thin Black Line(s): Tate Britain 2011/2012 (exh. cat.), Newcastle upon Tyne: University of Central Lancashire, 2011, pp.12—13. ‘The Thin Black Line’, Institute
 of Contemporary Arts, London, 15 November 1985—26 January 1986. Alongside Lubaina Himid,
 the exhibition included works by Brenda Agard, Sutapa Biswas, Sonia Boyce, Chila Kumari Burman, Jennifer Comrie, Claudette Johnson, Ingrid Pollard, Veronica Ryan, Marlene Smith and Maud Sulter.
  • L. Himid, ‘Mapping: A Decade of Black Women Artists 1980—90’, in Maud Sulter (ed.), Passion: Discourses on Black Women’s Creativity, Hebden Bridge: Urban Fox Press, 1990, p.65.
  • ‘From Two Worlds: Sixteen Artists of Non-European Background’, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 30 July—7 September 1986.
  • ‘The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain’, Hayward Gallery, London, 29 November 1989—4 February 1990, curated by Rasheed Araeen and featuring works by Araeen, Frank Bowling, Sonia Boyce, Mona Hatoum, Lubaina Himid, Gavin Jantjes, David Medalla and myself, amongst others. The exhibition later travelled to Wolverhampton and Manchester.
  • See G. Jantjes, ‘Black Artists, White Institutions: A Paper’, Artrage, issue 11, Winter 1985, pp.3—4; and G. Jantjes, ‘Art & Cultural Reciprocity’, The Essential Black Art (exh. cat.), London: Chisenhale Gallery and Kala Press, 1988, pp.42—45.
  • See Rasheed Araeen, Making Myself Visible, London: Kala Press, 1984. The range of practitioners whose contributions and practices urged the Arts Council to action is broad. Alongside the artists mentioned above, in a recent essay Jessica Harrington also includes Pan-Afrikan Connection (later known
as the Blk Art Group, which I co-founded in the early 1980s with Keith Piper, Donald Rodney and Marlene Smith), the Sankofa Collective (set up in 1983 by Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Robert Crusz, Isaac Julien and Nadine Marsh-Edwards), the Black Audio Film Collective (founded in 1982 by John Akomfrah, Reece Auguiste, Edward Georg, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, David Lawson and Trevor Mathison) and artists such as Sunil Gupta, Chila Kumari Burman and Ingrid Pollard. See J. Harrington, ‘Thinking Through Diversity’, Journal of Museum Education, vol.34, no.3, September 2009, pp.203—13.
  • Autograph ABP was established in 1988 as a photographic arts organisation seeking to present a programme of photography-related exhibition, research and publishing activities, with a particular emphasis on addressing issues of cultural identity.
  • ‘Global Proposals: Nikos Papastergiadis talks to Gilane Tawadros’, frieze, November—December 1994, p.28.
  • Dalya Alberge, ‘“Artists of colour” gallery redraws the cultural map’, The Independent, 25 August 1992, available at (last accessed on 24 March 2015).
  • Ibid.
  • ‘Global Proposals: Nikos Papastergiadis talks to Gilane Tawadros’, op. cit., p.29.
  • For more on the breadth of Gilane Tawadros’s programming, see her recent open letter ‘The Importance 
of Iniva’, Art Monthly, no.385, April 2015, p.11.
  • ‘Global Proposals’, op. cit. The proceedings of the conference were published in Jean Fisher (ed.), Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, London: Kala Press in association with the Institute of International Visual Arts, 1994.
  • Though there is no space here to explore this issue in depth, it is worth noting that the diversity policies that were established in the UK at around the same time as Iniva was being set up compounded the marginalisation of Black artists and Black people. For a discussion of Arts Council England’s policies regarding cultural diversity, see Richard Hylton, The Nature of the Beast: Cultural Diversity
and the Visual Arts Sector, Bath: Institute of Contemporary Interdisciplinary Arts, 2007.