The powerful paintings reframing black experience

Donkor was born in 1965 in Bournemouth to parents of Anglo-Jewish and Ghanaian heritage, before being adopted into a family of mixed British and Jamaican descent. He went on to spend his formative years in the UK and Zambia, this cross-continental living kindling his early love of the diversity of what could be configured as art, from comics to the works of artisans of the Kingdom of Kush and Tutankhamun’s gold funerary mask. He then studied for a Bachelor’s in Fine Art at Goldsmiths University in South London. “I found it quite a difficult experience for a variety of reasons,” Donkor says of his undergraduate years. “I think one of them was to do with the political awakening that had been occurring within me for quite a while before I went to university.”

The 1980s were marked by profound disaffection and deep pain for scores of black Britons. The long arc of  “complex political, social and economic factors” – as it was put in the Scarman Report of 1981 – resulted in frustrations, and the social order fracturing, in cities across the nation, from London to Leeds. Donkor found himself, at this time, pulled toward black community organising and the spaces where art interfaced directly with issues of the day, joining the discussion forum Black History for Action and, later, designing flyers for the Black People’s Campaign for Justice. However, the curriculum at Goldsmiths – which was, at the time, “overwhelming[ly] Eurocentric” – was not conducive to the parallel development of political principle and artistic practice.

Donkor did, eventually, find tutors who allowed him to “feel validated in [his] interests”, including the academic Sarat Maharaj and sculptor Pitika Ntuli – both of whom had found ways to situate their backgrounds (Indian South African and amaZulu South African, respectively) and commitment to anti-Apartheid activism within their work.

This newly minted sense of validation was parlayed into a successful appeal, led by Donkor and a cohort of like-minded peers, to the faculty at Goldsmiths to commission a group of then-emerging black artists to deliver a series of modules at the university. One of Donkor’s fellow students was Mark Sealy, now Director of Autograph ABP; and one of the emerging artists commissioned was Sonia Boyce, who became the first black woman to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2022 and went on to win the Biennale’s most prestigious award, the Golden Lion, that same year. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *