Aubrey WilliamsBirth of Maridowa presents bold, seemingly random brush strokes on a thickly layered ground of black and grey paint. On closer inspection, two figures – outlined in black and filled in whites, yellows and reds – emerge.

Birth of Maridowa

Birth of Maridowa 1959

Aubrey Williams (1926–1990)

Bradford Museums and Galleries

Both have their heads tilted towards a central white sweeping line – possibly a depiction of the artist's daughter, Maridowa, in the arms of the larger figure; probably Williams himself. In this painting, figuration and abstraction are not mutually exclusive.

Elephant's Eyeful

Elephant's Eyeful 1960

Alan Davie (1920–2014)

The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

The sweeping brushstrokes of Alan Davie's large painting, Elephant's Eyeful, however, have no discernable figures orchestrating its exuberance. The thickly painted white 'eye' in the centre of the painting is a centrifugal presence; a point of stillness in the chaos of strokes, squiggles and drips in blacks, maroons, yellows, earthy greens and light mauves. The vertically oriented 'eye' is in dynamic tension with a horizontal ovoid in yellow and maroon. The painting's frenetic energy hints at Davie's stated interest in the subconscious and the intuitive.

Waiting for the Cloud

Waiting for the Cloud 1946–1966

Ahmed Parvez (1926–1979)

Manchester Art Gallery

Ahmed Parvez's small and delicate gouache painting, Waiting for the Cloud, is dominated by a luxurious central sweep, built up from multiple colours applied with a broad brush in an echo of Chinese ink painting. The layered, wash-like application blends the colours into gradations of greys, blacks and maroons. The sweep explodes into an emergent figure – a spectral presence bathed in a lemony yellow light, floating under a white and blue 'cloud'. The thinly applied black paint diffused at the bottom of the scene accentuates the brightness above; even the signature seems an organic part of the composition.

The artists were contemporaries in London. They worked in dialogue with American abstract expressionism, each deploying gestural mark-making, investing in an abstraction that privileged what Williams termed the 'human predicament' – engaging figure, place, myth, ritual, pattern and the spiritual.

Hammad Nasar, curator

These works featured in the free exhibition 'Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination-Repetition', which was on at Manchester Art Gallery from 25th May 2018 to 22nd April 2019.

The exhibition was presented in partnership with the Black Artists & Modernism (BAM) project. BAM was a three-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council lead by UAL in collaboration with Middlesex University.

This text has been reproduced with permission from the publication produced by UAL with Manchester Art Gallery to accompany the exhibition, curated by Hammad Nasar with Kate Jesson.