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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: Life Between Islands at Tate Britain

    Tate Britain’s new exhibition, Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now, explores 70 years of British Art by more than 40 artists of Caribbean heritage. It has been several years in the planning and manages to seem both overdue but also of the zeitgeist.

    The sprawling exhibition is divided into five areas beginning with Arrivals and followed in order by Pressure; Ghosts of History; Caribbean Regained: Carnival and Creolisation; and Past, Present, Future.

    Arrivals consists of a series of colourful paintings by Caribbean artists from the Windrush generation who settled in the UK in the 1940s-1960. They were from Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago but became a community upon arriving in the UK and in the 1960s formed the collective The Caribbean Arts Movement. According to writer George Lamming whose book The Emigrants is on display,”We became West Indian in England.”

    The paintings on display are influenced by the Abstract Expressionists in style in terms of their use of colour but both Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling also refer back to Guyana, their homeland, in their respective works. Frank Bowling’s painting, Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman features the colours of the Guyanese flag in stripes of red, yellow and Green with a stencilled outline of Guyana in white.

    Displayed in the centre of the room are fabrics by textile designer Althea McNish. McNish, who graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1958, was also a member of the Caribbean Arts Movement. Her brightly coloured designs feature tropical motifs including Golden Harvest inspired by sugarcane fields in Trinidad. Her designs were commissioned by Liberty's and Heal’s.

    In Pressure this multimedia exhibition takes on social documentary using sculpture, installations, video installations and paintings. Horace Ove’s photographs highlight the influence of key figures from the US Civil Rights movement, bringing the Black power message to the UK in the 1960s with his pictures of James Baldwin and of Malcolm X walking along a platform at Paddington station. Vanley Burke’s pictures capture the everyday lives of Caribbeans in the UK. Neil Kenlock’s photographs depict the hostility experienced by many of them when they were denied access to certain venues and suburbs.

    There is a replica of 1970s front room complete with swirling carpet by Michael McMillan recreating a safe place where West Indian people would gather and socialise.

    Tam Joseph’s painting Sky at Night 1985 depicts the Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham and Denzil Forresters ‘Death Walk’ 1983 records the scene when Winston Rose was dragged through the streets by police. This is displayed next to his vibrant 1983 painting of dub reggae DJ Jah Shaka playing in a crowded club Phebes in Stoke Newington to a Caribbean audience as they dance and listen to music. Denzil Forrester was a member of the Black Arts Movement.

    The struggles of Caribbean people in the UK are ongoing across generations and Ghosts of History looks at the suffering of their ancestors. Keith Piper’s Go West Young Man includes a historic diagram of a ship used to transport slaves from Africa to the West Indies. An identical-sized coffin shaped space is assigned to each slave referring to the commodification of the human beings on board the ship. Nearby is Lubaina Himid’s delicate and colourful illustrations of scenes from the life of Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian soldier and revolutionary Haitian slave leader.

    Caribbean regained: Carnival and Creolisation features works by artists from this century who have migrated to the Caribbean like Peter Doig and Chris Ofili, producing artworks inspired by their new environment and culture. Ofili moved to Trinidad (as has Doig) in 2003 and his painting Blue Riders depict the Blue Devils which are traditional characters from Trinidad carnival. The figures in the painting also allude to the European colonial soldiers of the 1800s. Sonia Boyce’s video installation Crop Over looks at the Barbadian version of carnival. Crop Over stems from the celebrations of enslaved plantation workers at the end of sugar cane season. Several scenes from the video are set in the former plantation houses.

    The works in the final room Past, Present and Future represent a crossing of cultures and generations. Hurvis Anderson is a British-Caribbean painter born in Birmingham in 1965 to Jamaican parents. Anderson grew up with a romanticized view of Jamaica based on his parents memories of their homeland but he visited Jamaica in 2017 and developed his own perspective on his ancestral home taking the view of an outsider. Amidst the bright blue sky and lush, green backdrop of his landscape painting Hawksbill Bay is an abandoned hotel, an observation on the Island’s tourism industry.

    Liz Johnson Artur photographs the Grime music scene in South London in terms of people, places and events. Grime music is derived from Garage, Jungle, Dancehall and Hip Hop music.

    The scope of Life Between Islands is wide in terms of the different types of media on display and also from the wide range of emotions it brings up. The exhibition looks at the hardships and continuing struggles of Caribbean people in the UK but also provides an insight into their successes and achievements adding to and enriching British culture. There are works which make for uncomfortable viewing but also a sense that these stories need to be heard. There is alot to take in, in terms of the number of works and varied subject matter. But, as a survey of Caribbean art in the UK it is also an opportunity to discover works by artists you may not have heard of before.


    Ends 3 April