‘They are totally smashing it!’ Bernardine Evaristo on the artistic triumph of older Black women

Artists, novelists, actors, poets: from the Venice Biennale to Bridgerton, Black women in their 50s and 60s are finally getting the recognition they deserve, says the pioneering Booker winner

When I heard, earlier this month, that the fine-art photographer Ingrid Pollard had made the shortlist for the Turner prize, potentially the most career-changing of art accolades, I was overjoyed, but also astonished. Overjoyed because her art deserves this level of recognition; astonished because it has taken this long for Pollard, whom I have known for 40 years and is well into her 60s, to take her place in the spotlight. The sculptor Veronica Ryan also made the list. Like Pollard, she has had a sustained career as an artist since the 80s.

I delight in the fact that Black female creatives in their 50s and 60s are having a moment. Just this week, it was announced that Sonia Boyce, who also came of age in the 80s and is representing Britain at the Venice Biennale with her exhibition Feeling Her Way, had won the prestigious Golden Lion for best national exhibition. Likewise, Simone Leigh, representing the US, was awarded the Golden Lion for best participant for her bronze sculpture Brick House. They are both, shockingly, the first Black women to represent their countries since the biennale’s founding 127 years ago.

In other news, Everlyn Nicodemus, who is in her 60s, will shortly be the first Black woman to have a self-portrait on display in the National Portrait Gallery (established 1856) as part of a scheme to improve female representation in the gallery. What took them so long?

There are those who balk at the idea of paying too much attention to these milestones, as if they are not relevant, but they are, they are. In addressing the historical exclusion of some demographics in creative settings, we need to know what we are up against. Often, it is only when we crunch the numbers and see the stats laid out before us in black and white on a spreadsheet that the disparity in representation becomes glaringly obvious.

Everlyn Nicodemus at the Richard Saulton gallery in London
Everlyn Nicodemus at the Richard Saulton gallery, London. She will shortly become the first Black woman to have a self-portrait hang at the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Recent research in the US revealed that 85% of artists featured in prominent permanent exhibitions are white, while 87% of them are male. I imagine the British story is similar. Certainly, during the first 30 years of the Turner prize (established 1984), it was awarded to 25 male artists – indicative of a male-controlled arts culture that, for most of history, as the predominant arbiter of what constitutes excellence, relevance and importance, placed greater value on the aesthetics, context and, yes, politics of art produced by men.

To those who protest that women were not producing good enough work, it is simply not true. It is all about the value placed on art, and by whom. All of the women mentioned here are, in my opinion, outstanding creatives, offering unique talents and perspectives not offered elsewhere. Quality, however we define it, always comes first.

The Black male artists Isaac Julien, Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare gained international reputations more than 20 years ago – deservedly so – but Black female creatives have had to operate within not just a white context, but also a patriarchal one. For example, the powerful figurative portrayals of Black women by Claudette Johnson, another 80s alumna, didn’t have a hope in hell of garnering the attention they deserved until recently, via a significant exhibition in 2019 at Modern Art Oxford.

In the catalogue, she explained her raison d’etre: “A very long time ago I started thinking about how women take up space in the world. And about the space assigned to Black women within the media and within British society; I think it is a very small, twisted space that is offered. So I usually invite sitters to take up space in a way that is reflective of who they are and how they would naturally move or stand.”

If I compare the figurative paintings of Lucian Freud with Johnson’s, I know that I would place more value – aesthetic, cultural, financial – on her art. Freud’s reputation has long been embedded in our culture. His painting of Sue Tilley sold for £17.2m in 2008. Yet I would prefer one of Johnson’s portraits on my living room wall any day.

When Lubaina Himid was anointed with the Turner in 2017, she was 63 – the oldest person and the first Black woman to win it. It was a momentous occasion, celebrated by many of us. Not only was it her personal win, but it also felt like a win for Black women, for women of colour, for older women and for all those older female artists who were still struggling and felt overlooked. Her eligibility was the result of a decision to drop the under-50 age restriction, one that perpetuated the myth that if an artist hadn’t broken on to the “main stage” by the age of 50 they were past it. Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, which comes around every 10 years, works in the same way: only under-40s need apply.

Chila Kumari Singh Burman
Chila Kumari Singh Burman took over the facade of Tate Britain during lockdown. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Such age restrictions imply that only younger people are capable of producing fresh and exciting work – they alone are the future. It is true that they have more birthdays ahead of them than their elders, but for every talent that diminishes with age there are many more producing their best work from a foundation of deep lived experience, a lifetime of skill development, a mature understanding of human complexity and an undaunted adventurous spirit. In short, ageing is not synonymous with decay, calcification and irrelevance.

Some of the best debut Black female novelists who have emerged of late have been over 40 or even 50, such as Yvette Edwards, Sara Collins, Kit de Waal and Jacqueline Crooks, whose debut novel, Fire Rush, will be published next spring. Second-novel writers, after a long gap, include Jacqueline Roy and Nicola Williams, whose crime novel, The Advocate’s Devil, is also out in spring 2023.

And let’s look no further than Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s takeover of the facade of Tate Britain during lockdown. Four decades into her career, she created a dazzling, unparalleled display of radical subversion, colour and energy.

Prizes contribute towards a creative person’s success; some more than others. It goes without saying that there are many ways to define the concept of success. Creative ambition, originality and self-fulfilment are foremost, in my opinion, followed by external markers such as critical recognition, financial rewards, influence and audience. Himid, already a successful artist exhibiting globally, reached new heights after winning the Turner; a retrospective showcasing new and old work is on at that British temple of contemporary art, Tate Modern. Another landmark for a Black British female artist.

The Turner is making up for lost time. Two more older Black women have been the beneficiaries of its largesse of late: Helen Cammock, who won it alongside three other winners in 2019, and Liz Johnson Artur, who was one of the recipients of a Turner bursary in 2020, awarded in place of the cancelled prize.

As the first Black female recipient of the Booker prize – at the tender age of 60 – it has been career Christmas for me every day since. Winning it at 60 felt like the right time; interviewers are surprised when I don’t express regret at not breaking through earlier. Surely it would have been better for my career if I were younger?

That is not how I see it. At my age, I have a body of work behind me, a deeply rooted work ethic, confidence in my creative practice and an ongoing ambition to expand my craft and keep growing. Winning the prize as a “senior” means I have avoided potential pitfalls. It has boosted my career, but I hope it hasn’t inflated my ego, or disengaged me from my community, or made me feel crushed by the weight of expectation. Sixty years of living without being well known is long enough to become rooted in yourself and to feel a deep sense of gratitude when good things happen.

Himid, Johnson, Pollard and Boyce were key figures in the women-of-colour creative community in the 80s to which I belonged as a young theatre-maker and troublemaker. Himid curated three seminal Black women’s exhibitions during this period, a time when women of colour couldn’t get a look-in at the celebrated art galleries and museums, except maybe to don a catering uniform and dish up quiche lorraine or nut roast with a salad of rocket and pomegranate seeds.

Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury in Bridgerton
Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury in Bridgerton. Photograph: Liam Daniel/Netflix

Pollard was the photographer and poster designer for Theatre of Black Women, the touring theatre company I co-founded in 1982 with Paulette Randall and Patricia St Hilaire. As I wrote in my memoir, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up, “the artistic community to which we belonged had women at the heart of it. The company was not a collective, but we were connected to a wider community, and so we did not feel isolated, and although we were marginalised as women of colour when we were in white feminist or predominantly male spaces, in our own company, we were at the centre of everything.”

This was central to our survival and formed a solid foundation for our future careers. We were not alone. We did not have to explain to ourselves why we created art from our perspectives and we knew we had an audience for our work, no matter how small. Pollard was a supportive presence around our theatre company. Quiet, reliable, creative, she wore her hair in funky dreadlocks, as did many of us, but in rebellion against Babylon, rather than as a symbol of adherence to Rastafarianism. In the intervening decades, she never stopped pursuing her craft as a photographer, building up a steady portfolio of solo and group exhibitions, residences and teaching gigs, as well as awards, the most prestigious of which was the Baltic Artists award in 2019.

In addition to all of these women totally smashing it, there are others of a similar vintage who came of age in the Black women’s artistic circles of the 80s. Adjoa Andoh, who plays the redoubtable Lady Danbury in Bridgerton – one of the most successful television series of recent years – began her career in a Black women’s play called Where Do I Go from Here?, which I saw at Drill Hall theatre in London in 1984. Having enjoyed an increasingly successful career since, including stints with the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, she is now a global phenomenon, not as an inexperienced ingenue plucked from obscurity and dazed by the attention, but as a seasoned thesp whose career has suddenly shot skywards. In short, she can handle it.

Jackie Kay was Scotland makar
Jackie Kay, formerly Scotland’s makar, was no overnight success. Photograph: Denise Else/PA

Jackie Kay has long been a literary star, including five years as the Scottish makar, their poet laureate. We also need to pay attention to older visual artists who are not receiving enough exposure, such as Joy Gregory and Sutapa Biswas. Acclaim should not be contingent on winning big prizes or filling big galleries.

A life in the arts means weathering the inevitable vicissitudes. There might be decades spent watching other creatives racing past you, making you feel left behind. For some, it might mean spending years, even decades, struggling to be creative when self-confidence is at a low, or struggling to find work or gain attention for it. The upside is that we become resilient through adversity and, if determined enough, unstoppable. It might mean developing a portfolio career where most of your income is derived from everything but your own creativity, as was the case with me. For others, there will be instantaneous success and the pressures that come with that when you are new to your professional practice.

Until society becomes less negative towards ageing, especially of women, there will always be the fear that if you are not an instant success then you are destined for the slag heap. Once we hit 80, the myth is that we are supposed to be content with knitting blankets for grandchildren, or dribbling while free-farting in rocking chairs – insentient, incontinent, incoherent.

Women are still unduly judged on our looks; the younger we appear, the more marketable we are. We are told to expect a loss in energy as we age, but, honest to God, I am the one bounding into the lecture room at 9am in the morning only to be greeted by sleepy-eyed 20-year-olds who can barely speak. And who are the people I see bestriding the parks, fields and hills on long walks, with energy to spare at the end?

Just as women are taught to be ashamed of menstruation and the menopause, so we are taught to be ashamed of our maturation. How sad that 30-year-olds worry about being “past it”. We should celebrate every age and stage of our lives. It is one of my mantras, pounding the concept into my consciousness to redress a lifetime of being told otherwise. In the past few years, I have so frequently mentioned my age in interviews that it no longer holds any sway over me. I have talked the taboo out of myself. This year I will be 63.

The fact that so many Black women are powering ahead and breaking through when they are older is testament to two things. The first is a lifelong commitment to creativity, to not giving up – and, even if we do, to picking ourselves up again. For some of us, this is yielding the external markers of success. The second is a societal shift where we are finally being seen – noticed, visible – and our work valued more than ever before beyond our own demographic.

I asked Pollard how she felt about her nomination. Her reply was typically modest: “The nomination is a surprise and a vote of confidence, and a plus for photographic practice, which has been my medium for many years. I’ve always told students that they need to turn up for their practice every day. Nominations, awards and commissions are an element of being a visual artist, but after being around the art world for 40 years I have seen this interest come and go.”

But I do think it will be different this time. We have made real progress, although we must never get complacent. We must each take responsibility for speaking out – for ourselves and future generations.


Bernardine Evaristo

The GuardianTramp

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