By the end of Life Between Islands, the island that is centered in this exhibition is Britain, and “the Caribbean” remains a loose, ill-defined, hazy backdrop
Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now at Tate Britain brings together 70 years of Caribbean British art by more than 40 artists. The show is largely chronological, spanning from the modernist works of Windrush-era artists through what became known as the Black Arts Movement that emerged in Britain in the 1980s, to contemporary art both 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 were overlooked by Tate for decades — as well as sculptural works by Ronald Moody and Donald Locke and textiles by Althea McNish. In this section, titled Arrivals, substantial physical and theoretical space is given to mid-20th-century modernist artists. Locke’s “Trophies of Empire” (1972-74) casts a grid-like shadow across the room, composed of a wooden cabinet filled with cylindrical objects, some of which are affixed to various trophies and vessels.
The section introduces the Caribbean Artists Movement, a collaborative initiative of West Indian artists in London in the 1960s. It was an interdisciplinary endeavor that included writers and scholars as well as painters and sculptors exchanging work and ideas. A display of Denis Williams’s illustrations draws some of those inter-artist connections; he created the cover art for writer George Lamming’s novels In the Castle of My Skin (1953) and The Emigrants (1954).
The exhibition guide asserts that Life Between Islands “explores and celebrates the relationship between the Caribbean and Britain in art from the 1950s to today. Criss-crossing the Atlantic Ocean, it reconsiders British art history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries from a Caribbean perspective.” This is a bold curatorial statement. But by the end of the show the island that is centered in this exhibition is Britain, and “the Caribbean” remains a loose, ill-defined, hazy backdrop. While this may not be an exhibition on social history, it is a curious choice to present it as a celebration without interrogating the historical power dynamic at play, and why Britain is at the center of where these artists arrive and connect.
The transition to the Pressure section — the 1980s and the emergence of the British Black Arts Movement — feels like a leap into the greatest hits of the decade. This period has seen a surge of interest from researchers and curators in recent years, and it is a missed opportunity that these well-trodden works once again are read through an ethnic or cultural lens for the purpose of this show. The Tate website states that “The exhibition is not a comprehensive survey of Caribbean-British art,” but this section feels overcrowded. For example, Eddie Chambers’s “Destruction of the National Front” (1979-80), Tam Joseph’s “Spirit of the Carnival” (1982) and a number of photographs by Vanley Burke all occupy one wall; works are layered on top of each other to the point of saturation. Without enough room to breathe, the intensity of each piece is diminished. Michael McMillan’s installation The Front Room also incorporates photography by Neil Kenlock and Joy Gregory, as well as screening Horace Ove’s 1976 film Pressure on an analogue television set. It is almost impossible to focus on any one artwork.
This section of the exhibition aligns with a moment when British institutions started making attempts to engage with Black art. This was done primarily through group shows, often with nothing linking the artwork other than the artists’ race or ethnicity. While this was initially useful for a museum-going public largely unaware of the mere existence of Black art, it soon became a way of circumscribing the work of Black artists as distinct and separate from the mainstream art world. At times Life Between Islands comes across as a continuation of this model.
As it continues, the show’s premise becomes more convoluted. The inclusion of British artists who relocated to The Caribbean, such as Chris Ofili, who has lived in Trinidad since 2005, demonstrates an exchange of sorts, but it is an empty gesture without examining the impetus for his move and how it has impacted his practice. Barbadian artist Ada M. Patterson, now based in London, highlights a contemporary voice from the region, but this exception only seems to prove the rule that Britain is the central focus. Still photographs from their video Looking for “Looking for Langston” (2018) raise the question of access — this work was borne of their experience trying to gain access to Isaac Julien’s 1989 film Looking for Langston. Not enough was said about this, and the brilliant but physically small work was almost lost in the milieu.
Installation view of Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now at Tate Britain, 2021. Foreground: Donald Locke, “Trophies of Empire” (1972-74)
There are nods to the Windrush scandal in the Otolith Group’s film Infinity minus Infinity (2019), as well as Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s mixed-media piece “Remain, Thriving” (2018), a public artwork originally displayed at Brixton underground station, a historic center of Caribbean life in Britain. Yet it is baffling that this work, effectively the closing statement, is by an artist who is neither Caribbean nor British, and cannot offer anything more meaningful than a detached observation on a news story.
The high quality of the artworks themselves is a moot point; these are accomplished and established artists, many of whom are recipients of the most prestigious art awards and state honors. They warrant much more space and consideration than the exhibition provides, as it seemingly lumps them together on the basis of ethnicity. Survey exhibitions are often limited, but they can be effective when focused and selective rather than trying to encompass as much as possible. Given that the title is taken from the memoir of the late Jamaican-British thinker and scholar Stuart Hall, and the memoir’s narrative concludes in the early 1960s, a sole focus on the works of those in the Arrivals section would have been fitting. The section includes some of the least well-known and exhibited artists, who rightly deserve concentrated viewing and scholarship.
It is not possible to undo decades of erasure with one exhibition; in the past artists had few options other than to participate in these group shows, as exhibition opportunities were few and far between, and closer curatorial interest and solo opportunities rarely followed. It remains to be seen whether there will be a deeper engagement with any individual artists or whether the patterns of bygone decades will be repeated.