What is life like between islands?
By the title alone, I was intrigued by how life between Caribbean Islands and Britain has been documented by artists. And how this would be portrayed by a gallery like Tate Britain. From Tate’s perspective, ‘this exhibition explores and celebrates the relationship between the Caribbean and Britain in art from the 1950s to today’ (Tate 2021). So how was this intention achieved?
The exhibition was organised into five areas from a chronological standpoint:
- Arrivals — This section focused on migration from the Caribbean to Britain, facilitated by the 1948 British Nationality Act. Collaborations between artists across disciplines emerged. For instance, Denis Williams (b.1923) created cover work for George Lamming’s (b.1927) ‘In the Castle of My Skin’ and ‘The Emigrants’. The former reflects on the role of slavery on Black people’s sense of self. Whereas the latter considers the challenges of settling in Britain — the so-called Mother country — directly relating to the exhibition title. however, changes to immigration law — 1971 Immigration Act and the British Nationality Act 1981 — stemmed the flow of migration between the Caribbean and Britain, laying the groundwork for establishing a hostile environment for ‘undesirable migration’.
- Pressure — The political and social landscape for Black people during the 70s and 80s was documented by artists in multiple ways. For example, the rise of the National Front — a far-right fascist group that believed in white supremacy — and Black people’s physical and political interactions with this group were captured via photographs and symbolic means. For instance, Neil Kenlock’s (b. 1950) photograph below shows the physical destruction of community space as a result of National Front violence. Vanley Burke (b.1951) also took photographs of various demonstrations and protests against the National Front, immigration laws and police brutality organised in the West Midlands. Whereas Eddie Chambers (b,1960), literally turns the meaning of the union jack on its head linking its cooption by the National Front to fascism and white supremacy, as seen by the depiction of the swastika.
- Ghosts of history — Drawings by Barbara Walker (b.1964) link the conversation about the tense relationship between the police and the Black community from the 70s and 80s, into the 21st century. Walker sketched her son from different angles every time he was stopped and searched by police in the West Midlands. Initially hidden from Walker, the repetitive nature of the police’s use of stop and search overwhelming targeting Black men speaks to this continuation of prejudice, racial profiling and assumed criminality based on who you are and how you look.
- Caribbean regained: carnival and creaolisation — Tam Joseph’s (b. 1947) ‘Spirit of Carnival’ captures a feeling I relate to when I think about Notting Hill Carnival. Although Carnival’s seeds were planted by Claudia Jones and Rhaune Laslett as a way to celebrate Caribbean culture in Britain and ease inter-cultural tensions, police surveillance and controlling the movement of floats and crowds still persists— completely changing the vibe (Notting Hill Carnival, n.d.). However, Joseph also points to Black people’s resilience in the face of an excessive police force, now associated with Carnival.
- Past, present, future — Marcia Michael’s (b. 1973) expansive pieces at the end of the exhibition ties the final section, and exhibition as a whole together. Michael combines photography and moving image to centre on ‘intergenerational dialogue’ with her mother (Michael, 2021). Michael’s artwork ‘The Object of My Gaze is a multidisciplinary series that explores the visual act of Black matrilineage (search, recover, revive — continue) in order to reclaim evidence of maternal histories’ (Michael, 2021). This reinforces the importance of matrilineal traditions and histories through conversations. From Michael’s own example, this work challenges us to consider routes to discover how these histories can offer valuable lessons and knowledge at present and for our future. Especially, since the mode of knowledge production has previously been dismissed and deemed as an illegitimate knowledge source to draw upon, within the canon and study of history — particularly from a western lens.
Circling back to my question at the start of this blog, how was the exhibition’s intention achieved?
- The exhibition was vast in terms of the space provided to house these works and the sheer number of artists included. While the artists and artworks themselves demonstrated links between the Caribbean and Britain, the exhibition design didn’t reflect this in a dynamic and immersive way.
- Apart from Marcia Michael’s wall takeover at the end of the exhibition, Martina Attille’s (b. 1959) film ‘Dreaming Rivers’ and the set-designed front room, the topics the artists had documented felt flat whilst in the gallery space.
- I feel an opportunity was missed to see how visitors today responded to or reflected on some of these conversations — many of which are ongoing. How can galleries go beyond wall displays and interpretation panels to allow space for dialogue within the exhibition itself? Or do galleries still view themselves as places for ‘quiet contemplation’, where the meanings of the artwork created by visitors are only captured in surveys?
- I will say, that this exhibition built my knowledge of some Black British artists I was introduced to from Zak Ové’s (b. 1966) Get Up Stand Up Now exhibition. This points to some level of continuity by institutions commissioning and displaying Black artists in mainstream galleries.
- However, now this exhibition has closed where do people go to continue their discovery about these artists? And I feel that this feeds into a bigger question about the visibility of what artworks are held in museum collections and how easily accessible they are for visitors outside of exhibitions….