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‘Life Between Islands Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now’ – Uplifiting, inspiring, heart-rending and deeply moving… (art review)

‘Life Between Islands Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now’ – Uplifiting, inspiring, heart-rending and deeply moving… (art review)

As this show enters its final month, we look at what is a very fine collection…

By Devika Banerjee

THIS exhibition, ‘Life Between Islands – Carribean British Art 1950s – Now’ at Tate Britain is a majestically mounted collection of Caribbean-British art from the arrival of the first migrants on the SS Windrush in 1948 till contemporary times. The exhibition showcases 70 years of Caribbean-British art and heritage. It brings together the work of 46 artists from four generations.

Despite the deeply hostile and racist environment they found themselves in, the artists produced incredible work. Their art is a searing expression of arrivals, departures, protests, struggles, celebrations and, above all, incredible resilience.

Brimming with painting, sculpture, photography, installation and moving-image works, the show is uplifting and inspiring, heart-rending and deeply moving – all at the same time. Complex questions are asked about identity, belonging and what it means to be caught between cultures.

Many of the issues raised decades ago continue, unresolved.

Amongst others, the exhibition begins with the Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams, Jamaican artist, Ronald Moody and textile designer, Althea McNish from Trinidad. Challenging the British colonial systems in which they had been born and raised, questioning the dominance of British cultural values, their paintings, sculptures and textile designs make references to African and indigenous Caribbean cultures through new abstract and symbolic forms. They consciously reclaimed a heritage which centuries of slavery and colonisation had been erased.

Stunning black and white photographs run through show. Horace Ove’s piercing focus on racism and the Black Power movement in Britain with Malcolm X arriving at Paddington station; Stokely Carmichael addressing the Dialectics of Liberation Congress at the Round House in Camden in 1968; a quartet of girls on their way to lessons wearing Black Panther school bags light up the show. The photographer Charlie Phillips documents life in Notting Hill in 1960’s London. His words quoted in a wall text, are germane: “It’s not black history; this is British history, whether you like it or not.”

Notting Hill Couple, 1967 by Charlie Phillips
Gelatin silver print on paper
Tate © Charlie Phillips

The racial tensions that plagued the Notting Hill carnival in the 1980s are the subject of Isaac Julien’s fragmented audio-visual collage, Territories (1984). Juxtaposing scenes of heavy-handed policing with reggae sound systems, the film documents the strife between white authority and black youth, underscoring the carnival’s status as a radical display of defiance.

Black British identity is examined with honesty and integrity. Sonya Boyce, a prominent artist associated with the black British art movement in the 1980s, presents herself as a young woman holding up four family members in a self-portrait. Her hot pink dress is patterned with roses, a symbol of anglicised beauty. However, they are uncharacteristically black. The title and narrative of the painting suggests that Boyce is balancing Caribbean culture represented by her family with her own identity as a black British woman.

Sonia Boyce ‘She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On‘ (‘Some English Rose’), 1986 Oil pastel and pastel on paper ©Tate

Some parts of the exhibition expose uncomfortable truths. Horrific episodes of 1970s police brutality and racism are evoked in Neil Kenlock’s photographs of Black Power activists; Donald Locke’s sculpture ‘Trophies of Empire‘ (1972-74), meanwhile, consists of a cabinet filled with rows of “phallic” lead forms representing bullets. Keith Piper’s ‘Go West Young Man‘, a 1987 photo-collage which furiously invokes the Atlantic slave trade, racist lynchings, bodybuilding and British tabloid newspapers makes uneasy viewing.

A sense of place permeates throughout. The contemporary artist Hurvin Anderson hows the Caribbean as a contradictory place filled with beauty yet tainted by colonial history and economic problems. He addresses this in a panoramic painting of an abandoned hotel, Hawksbill Bay (2020), critiquing the cliché of the Caribbean as a location for solely leisure and consumption.

© Hurvin Anderson. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery. Photo: Richard Ivey

The exhibition ends with one of Steve McQueen’s earliest works looped on the television. A one-minute fragment of Super 8 dating back to 1992 shows two elderly West Indian men carrying potted palms from Brick Lane on the 243 bus home towards Tottenham. It’s apt title is ‘Exodus‘.

In the exhibition guide, the Tate acknowledges recent events such as the Windrush scandal and Black Lives Matter have challenged the institution to rethink the stories it tells and the communities it represents. For years, Tate Britain has been complicit in marginalising many of the artists in this show and the institutions is, of course, named after a sugar merchant who made his fortune in an industry built on the labour of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean.

Alex Farquharson and David A. Bailey have curated a superb exhibition showing how the descendants of exploited Caribbeans have enriched this island of Great Britain with their outstanding art.

Please note the above images are all subject to ©Tate and Strictly no reproduction, no alterations, manipulations or text overlay is permitted without prior written consent.

‘Life Between Islands – Carribean British Art 1950s – Now ’, from (December 2021) to April 3, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture