As he enjoys a late-career rise to widespread fame, artist Frank Bowling has been knighted by the Queen of England as part of her birthday honor’s list, which is given out twice annually, once on New Year’s Eve and once on the Queen’s birthday. Bowling had already been named an officer of the Order of the British Empire, and the knighthood is yet another symbol of his growing status within the British art world. The remainder of the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for this year will be revealed on Saturday.
Few Black British artists have been named knights. For some, the designation has been a fraught one. In 2003, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah famously rejected the award because of the “years of brutality” associated with the word “empire,” which he said implicitly can be linked to slavery and colonialism.
Attitudes have begun to change, however. In 2019, artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen accepted the knighthood; he said, “Because I’m from here and if they want to give me an award, I’ll have it, thank you very much.”
Bowling, who was born in British Guiana and is based in London and New York, had a similar reaction to McQueen. In a statement, he said, “Trained in the English art school tradition, my identity as a British artist has always been crucial to me and I have viewed London as my home since arriving in 1953 from what was then British Guiana. To be recognised for my contribution to British painting and art history with a knighthood makes me extremely proud.”[Related: Rianna Jade Parker writes about the status of Black artists in England today?]
Bowling’s semi-abstract paintings drawing on his own biography and various histories of colonialism have exhibited often in recent years. Having made the jump from figuration to abstraction in the 1960s, he has been embraced as a pioneer for his process-based abstractions, which obliquely pay homage to forced migrations and exoduses without explicitly representing them.
His work appeared in the traveling survey “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983,” which first opened at Tate Modern in London in 2017, and Okwui Enwezor organized a survey of his work for the Haus der Kunst in Munich that same year. (Tate organized its own Bowling survey in 2019.) Earlier this week, he joined the roster of one of the world’s biggest galleries, Hauser & Wirth.