Life Between Islands (Review: Tate Etc)

Many thanks to Michael O’Neal for sharing this review article/interview from Tate Etc. (Tate Etc. issue 53: Autumn 2021). Also see previous post A conversation-on-life-between-islands-caribbean-british-art-50s-now/.

Ahead of the opening of Tate Britain’s landmark exhibition Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 50s – Now, co-curators David A. Bailey and Alex Farquharson sat down with two artists in the exhibition, Isaac Julien and Alberta Whittle, to talk about the symbolism and history of the ocean, forging new communities and identities in Britain, and the relationship between creole and collage – themes in their work and the exhibition at large.

DAVID A. BAILEY Nature has great significance in Caribbean literature and art, and the sea has particular resonance – something that Derek Walcott captures in his poem ‘The Sea Is History’ (1979). Alberta and Isaac, could you describe the role of the natural world, particularly the sea, in relation to your art?

ALBERTA WHITTLE I spent much of my upbringing by the water’s edge, living very close to the ocean. There was always this sense of connectedness to its spirit but also the lingering question – how did we arrive here? What are the extended histories behind my family’s rootedness in the Caribbean? Consequently, when I arrived in the UK, I found myself longing for the ocean and trying to unpick how my presence was being framed; whether I was in a sense returning, and if I belonged here.

My digital collages, sculptures and film work are grounded in my curiosity about the ocean’s symbiotic relationship with arrival and departure; and beyond this, about the knowledge hidden beneath the water’s surface in the intertidal zone and deep waters. What resides in that archipelago of the Caribbean, and how can we connect more meaningfully with the diaspora?

The ocean is a place of deep mystery – a graveyard, but also a healing zone. When I am in the ocean, I feel at times that I’m creating a deeper connection with ancestors who may have lost their lives in the Middle Passage, and also with those who may have taken refuge near the ocean in Barbados. It feels both insistently haunting, as well as a place to go and baptise myself afresh. The sea can take on these different meanings.

In many of the images used in my digital collages, I return to a particular waterway in Barbados on the west coast, supposedly the site of the British arrival in Saint James – Jamestown’s original naming. I do so with an almost ghostly feeling, but also with an understanding of my own mortality, the mortality of my ancestors, and of what transpired in these watery zones.

What do I take with me from this body of water when I’m in Britain? Britain’s been my home now for over 20 years – which feels quite miraculous, frankly; that I am still here, still alive.

ISAAC JULIEN The oceanic is a recurring motif or theme in my work. My connection to it relates to my own family history – both my parents were from Saint Lucia. Filming there to make Paradise Omeros 2002 was like returning to a primal scene, and to the sea as a kind of primal space. It bears trauma but also possibilities, and also translates those lives and archipelago stories into a bigger story for the 20th and 21st centuries – one based around movement and subjectivities.

Paradise Omeros is a three-screen video that delves into the fantasies and feelings of Créolité (or creoleness) – the mixed language, the hybrid mental states and the territorial transpositions that arise when one lives in multiple cultures. Its protagonist, Achille, appears in two time periods and locations – first working as a waiter at a beach resort in contemporary Saint Lucia, and later wandering through the grey brutalist buildings of 1960s London. It was pivotal for me, in that it was in direct conversation with Derek Walcott, whom I met during Documenta 11’s Platform 3 workshop on Créolité and Creolization, held in Saint Lucia in January 2002.

In his Nobel Prize-winning poem Omeros (1990), he recasts Homeric mythology around the Caribbean, and I tried to re-articulate this in my own work. Walcott’s incredibly important poem ‘The Sea Is History’ also figures in the work – not literally but visually, in that I was interested in the way in which the Atlantic was being evoked, and to make that a passage for my protagonists in the work, as well as to create the flow between the islands – between England and Saint Lucia.

The natural world is a central theme in the way it reinscribes the body and relates to the question of movement; and also to the submerging and translation of identities and how they’re renewed in that transition. Paradise Omeros is also about the Windrush generation; for example, in the party scene we hear The Paragons’ song ‘The Tide Is High’, and during that moment, the important questions of home and belonging and of resistance come to the foreground.

Several of the works I made around that time drew on contemporary debates about Creolization and Créolité, terms originally discussed by writers such as the Martinique-born Édouard Glissant. They were about decentring and refocusing on the Caribbean as a site for thinking about the ways in which artists were making works in that part of the world, and also how literary, poetic and theoretical influences from the Caribbean were beginning to take hold in the contemporary art world. [. . .]

[Shown above: First, video still from Alberta Whittle’s “You Can Never Touch the Same Water Twice 2017” (courtesy the artist and Copperfield, London for Tate Etc); second, Isaac Julien’s “Paradise Omeros,” installed at Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, 2002 (courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice).]

For full interview, see https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-53-autumn-2021/life-between-islands

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