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  • Writer's pictureSegolene Py

Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British art 1950s - Now, at Tate Britain

Announced towards the beginning of the year, I was patiently but restlessly waiting for this exhibition to happen. As my interest and love for Caribbean art and culture constantly construct itself and grow, seeing such an event exposed in one of the most famous museum in the world touched me.

Tam Joseph, The Spirit of the Carnival, c.1982 (Gouache on Paper mounted on board)

After a rather long but most needed break, I wanted to start with my first late post of the year with something powerful. Life between Islands at Tate Britain started on 1st December 2021 continuing until 3rd April 2022. Spanning art from the 1950s until now, this exhibition is shows artworks by 46 different artists over four generations. This exhibition is organised into 5 parts over 5 different galleries with the following themes: Arrival ; Pressure; Ghost of History; Caribbean Regained; Past, Present, Future. The show is curated by Alex Farquharson, director of Tat Britain, and David A. Bailey, artist and curator focusing on Black representation in art.

Denzel Forrester
Frank Bowling

As they state, this is of course not a comprehensive survey. The incredible richness of Caribbean art and culture is far too important and broad to be contained in one exhibition. This rather focuses on the relationship between Britain and the Caribbean English-speaking countries from the 1950s. Starting at this period is not a trivial choice as it coincide with the Windrush Generation (: people from the Caribbean countries arriving in the UK between 1948 and 1973, as the United Kingdom needed work force after the second world war). The show exhibits many different media: painting, photography, video, installation, all tackling the socio-political struggles that Caribbean-British people have to deal with, social differences, the subject of colonisation and the definition of a Caribbean-British identity. It shows the duality of both cultures but at the same time the incredible development and creation of a singular Caribbean-British culture and identity.

John Lyons

The exhibition starts by presenting strong and well-known artists such as Aubrey Williams and his abstract paintings, rejoined by Frank Bowling, Denis Williams and John Lyons with his painting and poems. Very soon, artists and writers form an alliance together in London: In 1966, Artists from all practices, painters, writers, critics, formed a group called Caribbean Artists Movement where political and theoretical subjects were discussed and a common thinking of the importance of representing a decolonnial Caribbean aesthetic. Under the leadership of the writers Kamau Brathwaite (from Barbados), John La Rose (from Trinidad) and Andrew Salkey (from Jamaica), many of the members met through the BBC radio programme Caribbean Voices. Aubrey Williams and Ronald Moody were important figures within the movement. Although it dissolved in 1972, it had a true impact on the subject matter and influenced the growing debate of Black British community and its struggles against racism. The painting of Tam Joseph Spirit of Carnival demonstrates well of this hostility and struggles: Showing the masquerader surrounded by the police during Notting Hill Carnival emphasised with he presence of the dog, there is a clear threatening atmosphere. The work refers to the increasing violence of policemen during the Carnival but also stand as a figure of Black resilience.

In the same idea, Barbara Walker's drawings of her son on newspapers or police forms of her son's arrest or each stop-and-search experiences is very powerful. There is a mix of privacy and tenderness from the drawings, overcoming the violence of the administration of the police. In a time of racial profiling and surveillance, these works shows the point of view of the mother. The portrait showing him from behind reinforce the message of racial profiling and the ongoing judgement and stereotype projected on Black people.

The US anti-racist activism had also a great impact in the UK with the visit of great figures such as Malcom X and Stokely Carmichael. It influence the creation of Black British Panthers, uniting people from Caribbean, African and South Asian heritage. Very strong photographs by Horace Ové are displayed, showing the growing of the British Black Power movement in the 1960s after many processes and protests of decolonisation. The movement strongly influences riots in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Guyana. The photographs show Darcus Howe (one of the leader of the British Black Panther Party) addressing the Mangrove 9 demonstration or Dick Gregory and James Baldwin.

What could be a sequel to the Caribbean At Movement, is the Black Arts Movement in the 1980s. The event of the First National Black Art Convention in 1982 triggered the creation of this group concerned with the future of Black Art. This movement however was more centred in Black British diasporic identities, colonialism, racism, gender and sexuality. There is an urge to be seen and an urge to tell the story of the Caribbean islands that was romanticised, simplified or minimised in terms of affect and effect on the Black British population.

Njideka Annyili

The exhibition logically evolves into presenting artists who have Caribbean heritage but are British born. It shows the influence of the history onto the next generation. A generation looking for, or rather affirming, an identity and a place to express themselves. There is a physical and a mental struggle when sometimes stuck between being Caribbean or being British: where returning to the motherland (being the islands) you are perceived as European as per your manners, but in the UK you are perceived as foreigner as per your appearance. And on one side the culture is assimilated but the environment seems hostile to live in. This generation often analyses the effect of colonisation on the minds, a post-colonial state.

Liz Johnson Artur

There is so much more to see and to say about this exhibition. This is a mere summary and my own look into it which I hope will drive you to go and visit it. I was so thrilled to finally see Caribbean art at the forefront of the art stage and believe it will go forward in the future. Although, I found that spanning such a large period of time with different islands and culture is reductive as the Caribbean is brimming with amazing artists in all domains that cannot be reduced to one exhibition over 7 decades. It is, however, interesting to see the evolution of the art and the way of thinking of the Caribbean-British artists.

Contacts and Details:

Exhibition until 3rd April 2022

£16 / Free with ticket for Members

Concessions available

£5 for Tate Collective

Tate Britain

Millbank, London SW1P 4RG

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