Life Between Islands (Review): an exhilarating, ambitious look at the British Caribbean story

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Hettie Judah (iNews) reviews the Tate Britain’s “Life Between Islands.”

Sometimes an exhibition is just a collection of exciting art, and sometimes it’s a collection of exciting art bound together by big, important ideas. Life Between Islands at Tate Britain is very much the latter – a survey of Caribbean-British art since the 50s that really keeps you on your toes.

The show opens with four artists who came to Britain from Guyana in the post war period – Donald Moody, Denis Williams, Frank Bowling and Aubrey Williams. Although very different, their work is at once in dialogue with art of its time – geometric minimalism, big fields of colour, mystical abstraction – but also distinctly influenced by Guyana, its geography and indigenous (Amazonian) peoples. Underlying everything is the connection to place, and the sense that influence always works in multiple directions.

Within the great expanses of colour in Bowling’s paintings are ghostly traces of maps showing the outline of South America or Guyana itself. His waterfall-like poured paintings and mottled, resinous assemblages evoke river, sea and light. Denis Williams’s drawings and Aubrey Williams’s paintings writhe with otherworldly energy – the living spirit of the rainforest and the animating beliefs of those who inhabit it.

John Lyons’ painting Folklore Convention (2008) makes this mingling of the spirits more explicit: a night time encounter between supernatural entities of the African diaspora under the moon in Trinidad. Lyons’ scenes of carnival evoke a radical period of transformation, in which humans take on otherworldly guises, and the distinction between spectator and performer breaks down: all are in some way changed by it.

The Caribbean Arts Movement was founded in 1966, as artists and writers forged (or had forced upon them) a common identity in the UK. As writer George Lamming put it, “we became West Indian in London”. Althea McNish – an active participant – created gorgeous textile designs which suggest a celebratory Caribbean aesthetic of rich colours, bold pattern and abundant flora.

Meanwhile, Paul Dash’s paintings offer intimate views into domestic life, in which generations are brought together by music. In Dash’s intense self-portrait, the artist looks hemmed-in. He seems to be working in private with little light, but his pendant, bright scarf and box-like yellow hat also proudly assert a hybrid identity.

The centuries-long history of exploitation that preceded the arrival of the Windrush Generation makes a forceful appearance in works by Donald Locke. In Trophies of Empire (1972-4) a wooden shelving unit is arranged with black ceramic objects, all more or less phallic, some explicitly penis-like. Their presentation is variously celebratory and oppressive: some are shackled, others on decorative plinths. The black body appears reduced to raw material, a set of limbs and sexual organs, dehumanised, fetishised, demonised and profitable. [. . .]

Michael McMillan’s installation The Front Room (2021) is a portrait in absentia of a politically active young woman of Caribbean heritage in the 70s, which takes the form of a fully furnished living space. Between the mementoes and religious trinkets are photo frames carrying staged and documentary photographs by other artists. Harold Ové’s film Pressure (1975) plays on the TV. [. . .]

While acknowledging hostility and tension, what really animates this show is its exploration of creolisation: the development of new aesthetics, spectacles, musical forms, language and art practices that arise from diverse influences rubbing up against one another. Isaac Julien’s lush, disquieting Paradise Omeros (2002) dives between places and periods, from Derek Walcott’s “gold sea/ flat as a credit-card” in St Lucia to a Brutalist estate in North London. Walcott, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992, makes an appearance in the work, and his poetry also appears on the wall beside huge, watery, dreamlike paintings by Peter Doig.

Doig moved to Trinidad from London in 2003, and his presence (alongside that of Lisa Brice, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Liz Johnson Artur, among others) is part of this show’s exploration of multi-directional influence. This is not just an exhibition of work by British artists of Caribbean heritage: it’s a dive through art into the deep impact that each group of islands has had on the other. [. . .]

[Shown above: 1) Hew Locke’s Souvenir 2 (Edward VII in Masonic Regalia) (Photo: Hew Locke/Hales Gallery); 2) Michael McMillan’s The Front Room (Photo: Tate/Jaiwana Monaghan).]

For full article and photos, see

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