A report by Desiree Ibekwe for The New York Times.
When Tate Britain invited Hew Locke, a British-Guyanese sculptor, to contribute work to a landmark show on Caribbean and British art, he thought of an exhibition his father had been in 30 years earlier.
In 1989, Donald Locke’s sculptures were part of “The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain” at the Hayward Gallery, just down the river from Tate Britain. That show, celebrating artists of color’s contributions to the British art world, was disparaged by some critics, with one calling the works on display “tame and derivative” and another saying the artists “parroted Western visual idioms they don’t understand.”
“Looking back at who was in the show, it was a really important show,” Locke said of the participating artists in a recent interview, “but it was dismissed at the time.”
That reception, and how it reflected attitudes in the British art establishment toward artists of color, continues to loom large for Locke, even as Tate Britain’s show “Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art, 1950s — Now” has earned mostly positive reviews.
The ambitious exhibition, which runs until April 3, charts 70 years of Caribbean-British art through the works of over 40 artists with either Caribbean heritage or other connections to those islands, including Locke and his father. It tackles the themes of identity and family, colonialism and racism, and celebrates the richness of Caribbean culture.
We spoke with Locke, 62, and three other artists featured in the show — Alberta Whittle, 42, a Barbadian artist based in Scotland; Ada M. Patterson, 27, a visual artist from Barbados; and Zak Ové, 56, a British-Trinidadian artist — about what has and hasn’t changed for artists of color in Britain in recent decades, the complexity of Caribbean-British experiences, and whether the show means getting a seat at the table of the British art establishment.
This is an edited excerpt from a round-table discussion.
“Life Between Islands” features such a diversity of art, across many decades, made by people from different nations and backgrounds. How do you feel about these works being united under the banner of Caribbean-British art?
ALBERTA WHITTLE As someone who lives in Scotland most of the time, there is a sense of isolation in terms of being part of a Caribbean community. I only really feel that when I come home to Barbados and so being part of a show where there are so many people whose work I look up to, it was very humbling. I really appreciated seeing the diversity of approaches to making work and thinking about what it means to make work physically in the Caribbean or adjacent to that in the U.K.
ADA M. PATTERSON I moved to the U.K. when I was 18 to study fine art and I’ve always had a familial connection to the U.K., though I’ve never really identified with a sense of Britishness so that’s difficult to parse in relation to being invited to a show which uses the moniker of Caribbean-British art. For me, the question is, what does that mean? It can be used in a way to express a kind of solidarity for different bodies and lives between the Caribbean and Europe or the United Kingdom. I think that’s what the show does: It’s a collection of complicated and maybe even conflicted experiences.
HEW LOCKE What it does, for me, is show more of the Caribbean. In the U.K., particularly, and in America, there can be a simplistic idea as to what the Caribbean is. It’s more complex, Caribbean society in different countries are very different. I grew up in a country where two thirds, roughly, of the population are descended from Indian indentured laborers, and temples and mosques abound in Guyana. That’s very different from Jamaica. I’m thinking that people may get a rightly complicated idea of what Caribbean identity, whatever that is, is.
Are you surprised it has taken this long for a show like this to exist?
WHITTLE I thought it was really long overdue. As someone who’s been going to the Tate since I was a teenager, I was always looking for work that connected to me in some kind of level, in terms of my identity or my own politics, and often that was missing in large gallery shows.
I’m reminded that in 2020 I heard a journalist say, “when are we going to stop seeing art by Black artists? There’s enough now.” A year later, we now have the show, but actually, there’s an expectation that this is a temporary moment. So while I’m thrilled to be part of the show, I have great reservations about still how ready people are to take work by Black and brown artists seriously.
LOCKE What that critic was saying to you is, I’m bored already, excite me with a new thing, you know what I mean? We’re on to the next thing, sod these people. You can just feel that itching urge to move on from this.
WHITTLE I feel as though it’s almost part of a deeper discomfort. The presence of a large institutional show of Caribbean artists or artists who are somehow linked to the Caribbean makes people uncomfortable. You know, our presence makes people uncomfortable. There’s something very strange about always being seen as a disrupter.
PATTERSON I think it’s also just very distracting to the joy that we might feel about the show existing. I get locked in this loop of, well, what’s the political agenda of including us in this show? Instead of actually thinking, it’s great that this overdue show finally exists and I feel honored to share this space with you and the other artists.
For many people, having a show at Tate Britain is seen as being the peak of the British art establishment. Does it feel like that?
LOCKE There’s still a feeling of, it’s not impostor syndrome, but it’s something along those lines. I’ve been in this country working away at this career for many decades. And it’s like, OK, finally, you’re getting somewhere but still there’s a feeling of insecurity. I wonder if other artists are thinking at the back of their mind, “Boy, I better make some money or some stuff now because these guys are going to move on to the next thing next year.”
WHITTLE Especially with the world being what it is right now, which is so disturbed and uncertain, it feels like every day I wonder when that time will come to just sit in a moment and enjoy, without worrying about how much longer one will have a seat at the table, even if you do have a seat at the table.
What does the Caribbean mean to you and how does the region or the countries you come from manifest in your art? Several of your works mention carnival, for example.
WHITTLE Something which features quite significantly in my work as a way for me to think about my Caribbean identity is land — whether that’s access to land, or it’s land as a performance space. That performance of gender or masquerade, thinking about dreamscapes and traditional masquerade, thinking about carnival as a way the world can be put upside down for one day.
In the Caribbean, there is that sense of rising up and taking these moments for agency and critique. I see a lot of space within that masquerade or carnival or bricolage sensibility because when I think about how I reflect on carnival, it is about that critique, but it’s also about collage, how does one bring together these different perspectives and create a form of rupture so that we can have moments for play.
PATTERSON That definitely resonates a lot, especially when you said the word rupture. I think for myself, I’m always coming from this sort of fragmented perspective. Something that I enjoy doing when I’m back home in Barbados is going to the east coast, which is the Atlantic coast to see what washes up.
It’s about sort of picking up the fragments of what washes up in these places and trying to make sense of it together and, as a queer person, as a trans person who grew up in Barbados, you do get pushed to places that feel almost on the edges and you have to try and make a different kind of life for yourself. So the parts of my practice that I would say resonate with questions of what it might mean to be Caribbean, for me, it’s just picking up the materials that I’ve inherited from Barbados or from the region.
And when I think about carnival, I’m thinking about the materials of it: disguise and masquerade and what I can do with those to create a different kind of life. I think about disguise in relation to values of discretion as a queer person in the Caribbean and how that might give me more space to breathe.
ZAK OVÉ My experience is different, having been born in Britain in quite a turbulent moment where Black-British identity hadn’t really been declared. I grew up in a period where Black-British kids were still being told to go back to where they came from, so there was a huge misunderstanding as to who we were, in many respects.
So a return to the Caribbean was also searching for an identity that had been described but never seen. It was always fascinating for me to go back to Trinidad in extreme contrast to growing up in Camden Town. Carnival was a revelation, as were many other things — family, culture — but in particular, masks are something that has put a big indent on my work and what I do. The idea of the emancipation that came through that, through exaltation, through costume.
The legacy and impact of colonialism on the Caribbean and how that is reflected in Britain is a main theme of the show. I imagine white audiences expect that from an exhibition of works by people of color. Do you feel that expectation?
LOCKE You’re doing what you want to do, but at the same time, there’s something sitting on your shoulder, knocking on your head saying ‘You have to represent, Hew, you have to represent’ and it can be an issue, which I think about from time to time.
WHITTLE It’s very tricky because I think there is an expectation that work will hit a particular mark. It reminds me of this film by Donald Rodney where he spoke about wanting to paint sunflowers and it’s really influenced the work I’m making right now, to think, well, I’m just going to make something which makes me feel like I’m painting sunflowers.
But I can’t deny the fact that I’m genuinely frightened by what’s going on in the world today. Any moment I’m expecting my British passport to be taken away from me given the recent Nationality and Borders Bill [legislation recently introduced in Parliament which includes a clause that allows for dual nationals, or those born outside the U.K., to be stripped of British citizenship]. I’m not going to pretend that that’s not been at the forefront of my mind, but I do want there to be time for me to paint my sunflowers.
OVÉ I think that good artists coming out of our particular commonality, for the most part, are self-made superheroes who have tailored costumes to suit their situations, but the problem is that to see the problem is to share in the responsibility.
I do think the one thing we share as a forum of artists in the exhibition is a need to speak about situations that haven’t been addressed in our world. I think that remains the same as we move forward in time because we’re looking at new problems as well as new identities. It’s a lifetime’s commitment.
PATTERSON I feel complicated about this, because, yes, I have previously felt a pressure. At primary school in Barbados, every morning at assembly we had to say the national pledge and how we’ll represent Barbados beautifully. The memory of that is still present in the back of my head.
At the same time, being in the body that I am in and living the life that I do live, I’ve already technically dishonored my country; I’m already in this place of being an undesirable. I don’t feel the need to succumb to the pressure of being a good example of something. Thinking about the expectations that I might run into on this side of the world, in the U.K. or in Europe, I’ve kind of just come to accept that I will be misread, I will be misunderstood and, to be honest, I don’t have a lot of time for a viewer or a person that’s not interested to listen carefully or to look carefully.
The exhibition displays works by collectives such as the BLK Art Group of the 1980s. How important is working collectively to you?
PATTERSON A sense of collectivity or communality has been really important even since I was doing my undergraduate degree. I think my own generation is, on a certain level, disenchanted with always trying to appeal to establishment or institutions. I feel like a lot of work being collectively or communally made in my own generation has been about speaking to each other, listening to each other and establishing our own senses of taste and value, rather than always being in conversation with this power system which doesn’t actually care about us. For me, it’s a position of radical disinterest in that kind of system.
It’s also about articulating presence. The work I’ve been doing most recently is with other queer and trans performance practitioners in Barbados to make sure their experiences are written down, that their practices are documented, looked after and taken care of for the next generation of our community, which has been maligned, not listened to, not seen, not looked after by whatever power, whether it’s the European art establishment or whether it’s the Caribbean state.
Where do you see Caribbean-British art going?
OVÉ More important, also, how has it informed British culture? How has Caribbean art practice over the years informed who we are in Britain? How has it changed the sphere of British writing, British dialogue in the street, the fashion we wear, the music we listen to? What I’m more interested in is how that becomes a source of influence, how each generation might take that influence and continue to spice up what they’re doing with the notion of that identity.
PATTERSON Across different parts of the Caribbean and not only the English-speaking Caribbean, one of the most pressing issues right now is the climate crisis. And it’s being addressed quite thoroughly by artists of my own generation — and previous generations — because we’re all experiencing this and the Caribbean is one of the front lines of the climate crisis.
WHITTLE We are literally at the frontline of climate change. My work has been looking at the relationship between climate catastrophe, climate change and climate colonialism. It’s a really huge concern. However we want to consider the Caribbean, it is incredibly precarious. Solutions, even if they’re temporary, or strategies really need to focus on Indigenous communities, need to focus on these small island nations, to actually try and find ways to somehow slow things down. Otherwise, we really risk even greater devastation than what we’re already encountering right now.
OVÉ I’ve just finished a campaign for Writers Rebel, which is a part of Extinction Rebellion, and one of the questions we were pondering was how we can work on the language used in environmental activism, to change that to address people in the Caribbean and Africa.
Because, in a way, it feels like a white middle-class plotline, where the rest of the world doesn’t really acknowledge it in the same way because it’s not being spoken in their own backyard speak. So I think it’s very important and I think there will be a huge wave of Caribbean artists who will be addressing environmentalism quite critically, and hopefully, quite forcefully.