Life between islands

Briefing’s Culture Vulture is impressed by Life Between Islands, Tate Britain’s exhibition of Afro Caribbean art, booking until 31st March, £16 entrance, concessions available.

On my recent return to Plague Island I managed to get to a few excellent exhibitions in London. Tate Britain currently has a large display of art produced by Afro Caribbean artists working in the UK from the 1950s The art itself is very diverse, and I can’t fully do it justice here. But I can give a flava at least.

The exhibition is roughly chronological, and grouped around themes: ‘arrivals’, ‘pressure’, ‘ghosts of history’, ‘Caribbean regained’, ‘past present future’. In the afterword, the museum is keen to acknowledge the greater urgency created by Windrush and Black Lives Matter. While also acknowledging that their own benefactor, Henry Tate, was himself a sugar refiner whose business was built on the legacy of slavery!

The ‘Arrivals’ section locates the artists in the half a million ‘Windrush’ wave of arrivals who took advantage of the 1948 Nationality Act, which encouraged ‘Citizens of the UK and Colonies… to return to the Mother Country’. Coming from disparate islands, it was commented that migrants “became West Indian in London”.

Already artists were challenging the colonial systems into which they had been born and raised, and questioning the dominance of British cultural values. They consciously reclaimed a heritage that had been fragmented and erased by centuries of slavery and colonisation. Look out for Ronald Moody’s sculpture The Onlooker and John Lyons’ Jab Jab

‘Pressure’ is titled after a highly influential film by Horace Ove, considered the first full length dramatic black film produced in the UK. This section reflects on the black experience in a 1970s and 80s Britain of high unemployment, hate filled media, police harassment and the rise of the National Front. Some of these works were very familiar to me featuring as they do the work of Charlie Phillips, Vanley Burke, Hurvin Anderson and Keith Piper.

There’s a lot of black and white photography, all of it pretty essential. Some of it just recording everyday life of that community – in their homes, the barber shop, the church – and later vividly bearing witness to the Handsworth riots, NF marches and all the rest But also in here we see the birth of the Black Arts Movement (BAM).

‘Ghosts’ features the work of four artists from the BAM. Their work insisted that the legacies of colonialism and slavery were (are!) an ongoing force in the lives of British and Caribbean people. They make links between the uprisings of the 80s and the revolutions of enslaved people. Look out for Peter Doig’s The Music of the Future and Roshini Kempadoo’s Ghosting.

‘Caribbean regained’ focuses on creolisation, the blending of cultural influences resulting from often violent conflicts between European, African Asian and the indigenous Caribbean societies. It takes its most vivid form in Carnival which to this day has resisted commodification, and remains as a celebration of black life and Caribbean culture in the UK.

Tate Britain – and what do we mean when we say ‘Britain’ or ‘British’  – readily acknowledges that it was slow to recognise Black British artists, and to begin collecting, and displaying their work. Life Between Islands is a very decent start, but a number of these artists could merit a solo exhibition. I highly recommend this exhibition and hope to see narrower more focused displays to do justice to the Black British experience in the future.

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