Navigating Worlds an Ocean Apart, Through Art

[Many thanks to Teresa White for bringing this item to our attention.] Desiree Ibekwe (The New York Times) interviews Hew Locke, Alberta Whittle, Ada M. Patterson, and Zak Ové. She writes, “Four artists featured in a major London exhibition about Britain and the Caribbean reflect on identity, the art world and living through changing times.” She is referring to “Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art, 1950s — Now,” which is on view until runs until April 3, 2022. [Also see our previous post: Life between Islands.] Here are excerpts from 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.

“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. [. . .]

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. [. . .]

For full article and photos, see https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/07/arts/design/british-caribbean-artists.html

[“Life Between Islands” artists, from left: Alberta Whittle, Hew Locke, Ada M. Patterson and Zak Ové. Credit…From left: Matthew Williams; Danny Cozens; Koes Staassen; via Zak Ové.]

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