Tate’s Survey of Caribbean-British Art Centers Britain

LONDON – Life Between the Islands: Caribbean British Art 1950s to the Present at Tate Britain brings together 70 years of Caribbean-British art by more than 40 artists. The exhibition is structured largely chronologically, ranging from modernist works by artists from the Windrush era, through what became known as the Black Arts Movement in Britain in the 1980s, to contemporary art by and about the Caribbean diaspora in Britain.

The exhibition begins promisingly with a selection of large-scale abstract paintings by Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling – ironically both artists who have been overlooked by Tate for decades – as well as sculptural works by Ronald Moody and Donald Locke and textiles by Althea McNish. In this section, entitled Arrivals, significant physical and theoretical space is given to modern artists of the mid-20th century. Locke’s Trophies of Empire (1972-74) casts a lattice-like shadow across the room, which consists of a wooden cabinet filled with cylindrical objects, some attached to various trophies and vessels.

Vanley Burke, “Young Men on a Seesaw at Handsworth Park” (1984) (Courtesy Vanley Burke)

The section introduces the Caribbean Artists Movement, a community initiative of West Indian artists in London in the 1960s. It was an interdisciplinary endeavor where writers and scholars as well as painters and sculptors shared their work and ideas. An exhibition of illustrations by Denis Williams traces some of these inter-artistic connections; He designed the covers for novels by George Lamming In the castle of my skin (1953) and The emigrants (1954).

The exhibition guide claims so life between islands “explores and celebrates the relationship between the Caribbean and Britain in art from the 1950s to the present day. Criss-crossing the Atlantic Ocean, it takes a Caribbean perspective on British art history in the 20th and 21st centuries.” This is a bold curatorial statement. But by the end of the show, the island that takes center stage in this exhibition is Britain, and “the Caribbean” remains a loose, ill-defined, fuzzy backdrop. While this may not be a social history exhibition, presenting it as a celebration without questioning the historical power dynamics and why Britain is at the center of where these artists arrive and connect is an odd decision.

Aubrey Williams, “Shostakovich Symphony No. 12, Opus 112” (1981) (© Aubrey Williams Estate)

The transition to print section – the 1980s and the emergence of Britain’s black arts movement – feels like a dip in the biggest hits of the decade. This period has attracted intense interest from researchers and curators in recent years, and it is a missed opportunity that these leaked works are re-read through an ethnic or cultural lens for this exhibition. The Tate website states, “The exhibition is not a comprehensive overview of Caribbean-British art,” but this section feels crowded. For example, Eddie Chambers’ Destruction of the National Front (1979-80), Tam Joseph’s Spirit of the Carnival (1982), and a series of photographs by Vanley Burke all occupy one wall; Works are layered on top of each other until saturation. Without enough room to breathe, the intensity of each piece is reduced. Installation by Michael McMillan The front room also includes photographs by Neil Kenlock and Joy Gregory and the screening of Horace Ove’s 1976 film print on an analog TV. It’s almost impossible to focus on a single work of art.

Frank Bowling, “Kaieteurtoo” (1975), UK Government Art Collection (© Frank Bowling. All rights reserved, DACS 2021)

This section of the exhibition ties in with a moment when British institutions began to engage with black art. This was done primarily through group exhibitions, often with nothing other than the race or ethnicity of the artists. While this was initially useful to museum audiences largely unaware of the mere existence of black art, it soon became a way of reframing the work of black artists as distinct and separate from the mainstream art world. Sometimes life between islands looks like a continuation of this model.

As it progresses, the show’s premise becomes more convoluted. The inclusion of British artists who have relocated to the Caribbean, such as Chris Ofili, who has lived in Trinidad since 2005, shows an exchange of sorts, but it’s an empty gesture without examining the impetus for his move and its impact. Barbadian artist Ada M. Patterson, now based in London, is highlighting a contemporary voice from the region, but this exception only seems to confirm the rule that Britain takes center stage. Stills from their video In Search of “In Search of Langston” (2018) raise the question of access – this work arose from her experience of gaining access to Isaac Julien’s 1989 film Looking for Langston. Not enough was said about it, and the brilliant but physically small work almost disappeared in the milieu.

Installation view from Life Between the Islands: Caribbean British Art 1950s to the Present at Tate Britain, 2021. Foreground: Donald Locke, ‘Trophies of Empire’ (1972-74) (courtesy Tate Britain)

The Otolith Group film contains references to the Windrush scandal Infinity minus Infinity (2019) and Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s mixed media work Remain, Thriving (2018), a public artwork originally exhibited at Brixton underground station, a historic center of Caribbean life in the UK. Still, it is amazing that this work, effectively the final word, should come from an artist who is neither Caribbean nor British, and who can offer nothing more telling than a detached observation of a news story.

The high quality of the artwork itself is a moot point; These are accomplished and established artists, many of whom have received the most prestigious art awards and state awards. They deserve far more space and attention than the exhibition offers, as it seemingly lumps them together on the basis of ethnicity. Overview exhibitions are often limited, but they can be effective when focused and selective rather than trying to cover as much as possible. Given that the title is taken from the memoirs of the late Jamaican-British thinker and scholar Stuart Hall, and given that the memoir’s narrative ends in the early 1960s, it would have been appropriate to focus solely on the works of the individuals in the Arrivals Section . The section includes some of the least known and exhibited artists who rightly deserve focused consideration and exploration.

Installation view by Michael McMillan, The front roomin Life Between the Islands: Caribbean British Art 1950s to the Present at Tate Britain, 2021 (courtesy Tate Britain)

It is not possible to undo decades of extinction with one exhibition; in the past, artists had few opportunities other than to participate in these group shows, as exhibition opportunities were scarce and widespread, and closer curatorial interest and solo opportunities rarely followed. It remains to be seen whether there will be a deeper examination of individual artists or whether the patterns of past decades will be repeated.

Life Between the Islands: Caribbean British Art 1950s to the Present continues at Tate Britain (Milbank, London, England) until April 3rd. The exhibition was curated by David A. Bailey, Artistic Director of the International Curators Forum, and Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain.

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