This radical and essential show at Tate Britain builds on the momentum of the Black Lives Matter Movement and will hopefully prove as educational and as popular as the hugely successful Soul Of A Nation.
It’s midday on an icy Monday in early December and I’m meeting fellow scribe Andy Thomas for the press viewing of Life Between Islands: Caribbean British Art 1950s – Now. Still buzzing from Theaster Gates’ Clay Sermon’ at the Whitechapel, a few days earlier, my hopes were high.
Little did we know it but we were about to be blown away, room after room, by one of the most finely tuned and deftly curated shows I’ve seen in a long time. In the words of its curator – photographer, writer, curator, lecturer and cultural facilitator – David A Bailey MBE: “Although several years in the making, this exhibition has an additional sense of urgency in the wake of protests in support of Black Lives Matter and the Windrush scandal. These events have forced a national reckoning with British history, challenging institutions to rethink the stories they tell and the communities they represent.”
Life Between Islands‘ is broadly chronological show. The powerful content, which spans painting, sculpture, photography, film and fashion is constructed around different themes which embrace “the culture of decolonisation, the socio-political struggles that British-Caribbean people face, the social and cultural significance of the home, the reclaiming of ancestral cultures and the cross cultural nature of Caribbean and diasporic identity”.
The Afro Caribbean population in the UK have consistently battled against a hostile racist environment built on negative stereotypes and historical ignorance. A succession of Governments have failed to recognise the contribution of a community that has created a unique and distinctly Caribbean-British culture – a culture that has had a massive influence on modern Britain as a whole. This show is testimony to several generations of artists, practitioners, who have dedicated themselves to their practice despite discrimination and limited access to cross cultural spaces. I will never forget inviting a Gloucester based sound system to play at the art college in Cheltenham in the early Seventies. After stringing up the set, several young box boys were stood looking at the fish pond outside the refectory. They had entered another world and one quietly asked me, “Can black people come here?” It was good question.
There are a host of names in this exhibition that I’m sure many people are familiar with – Frank Bowling, Steve McQueen, Peter Doig, Isaac Julien, Dennis Morris, Michael McMillan, Liz Johnson Artur, Lubaina Hamid (currently exhibiting at Tate Modern), Horace Ové, Zak Ové, Charlie Phillips, Pogus Caesar – but there a lot excellent artists here, many of whom are women, about whom I know nothing. That fact in itself is speaks volumes.
Our journey begins with Arrivals and those invited, in the wake of WW2, to the UK under the 1948 British Nationality Act. It was an invitation to “citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies” to “return to the mother country” and as writer George Lamming pointed out, that despite arriving from different islands with different identity’s and cultures in the Caribbean, “we became West Indian in London”.
This group of visual artists forged new paths. They found natural allies with others from the Caribbean whether writers or activists. Frank Bowling arrived from Guyana after doing National service in the RoyalAir Force. After studying at Chelsea School of Art he won a scholarship to the Royal College Of Art where his fellow students included David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones and R.B. Kitaj. Bowling’s dedication to abstraction has more in common with Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane than the pop art of his contemporaries and the large abstract canvasses at this show sees him directly introducing references to to his African and Caribbean roots. It was genuine treat to see Frank’s long overdue retrospective at the Tate pre Lockdown.
As we progress through the space we next meet PRESSURE and a group of artist whose work confronted British racism head on. Black Power was on the rise in the late Sixties and Seventies and is well documented in the artworks here. There are photos of Stokely Carmichael, James Baldwin and Darcus Howe addressing a Mangrove protest. There are Neil Kenlock’s Black Panther school bags. There is the celebration of hard won spaces whether the West Indian Front Room, reimagined by Michael McMillan, Liz Johnson Artur and Grace Wales Bonner, or a painting of a Jah Shaka Sound System session. This was an era of resistance. There was the era of SUS, the New Cross Fire, the explosion at Carnival in ’76 and the ’81 riots that blazed in every major city in the UK. Make sure you sit through Isaac Julien’s Territories. Take your time. Let the works sink in. .
The Ghosts Of History rooms introduce us to the works of the Black Arts Movement of the Seventies and Eighties. They confront the legacy of slavery, colonialism and migration and the ongoing stereotyping, the demonisation, of a people, a community, whether in the media or through the state and policing. This work pulls no punches, it hits hard and it needs to for people outside the black community to realise just how invasive and consistently insidious it is.
Caribbean Regained: Carnival and Creolisation carries us across the Atlantic. Caribbean Regained: Carnival and Creolisation carries us across the Atlantic. Here, we find ourselves at the global crossroads. These artists are working with the African cultural and religious retentions while exploring the impact of the cultures of the indigenous peoples and the practices of the indentured labourers from India and China. They take us to the roots of Carnival… of masquerade and shine a bright light on collective resilience. Look no further than Zak Ové’s evocative sculptures.
Also worth spending time with are Peter Doig’s paintings – a collaboration between the Trinidad based Scottish-Canadian painter and the Nobel Prize winning poet Derek Walcott from St Lucia. As we progress to the final chapter Past, Present, Future we witness a new generation of artists building the foundations laid by previous generations. They embrace creative multi-disciplinary and collective approaches to critiquing and furthering the struggle against the ongoing consequences of this country’s slave owning and colonial past. Past, Present, Future reminds of a quote from acclaimed cultural theorist Stuart Hall who wrote, “detours through the past” are necessary “to make ourselves anew”. That concept resides at the heart of Life Between Islands and confirms my view that this exhibition is truly radical and one can only hope that it generates the same kind of audiences that made their way to Tate Modern for Soul Of A Nation.
Life Between Islands : Caribbean British Art 1950s – Now is on @Tate Britain until 3rd April 2022.
PB/Straight No Chaser