Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s is exhibiting works of over 40 artists, documenting the lives and works of people from the Caribbean and those inspired by the Caribbean, in post-war Britain. Curated by David A. Bailey, Artistic Director of the International Curators Forum and member of the Black British Arts Movement, Life Between Islands is an emotive and extensive survey of Caribbean heritage and its place within British culture and society.
When I visited on Saturday morning, Life Between Islands was sold out. The first room was busy, but no one was talking. The bass from a video room further away reverberated into the space setting our collective metronome. In the centre of the room, welcoming you as you enter, sits Ronald Moody’s ‘Johanaan’ (1936). Moody’s sleek sculptural figure, carved from a block of elm, takes inspiration from the art and spirituality of Egypt, India and China. It engulfed me as I stood in front of it; huge, still, calm.
The exhibition itself is gloriously interdisciplinary; paint, textiles, documentary photography, poetry, design, music. They sit together building a picture of seventy years of cross-cultural exchanges within Caribbean art. I watched as people paused at different works. In the third room, I paused at a glass cabinet in the centre of the space. I was struck by Barbara Walker’s ‘I can paint a picture with a pin’ (2006), a series of intimate ink drawings of the artist’s son made directly on the police forms handed to him every time he’s been stopped and searched. The four-paper works speak of racial profiling, surveillance and our ever-intensifying police state. Subtle and delicate, they were quiet in their power.
As I moved through the spaces, I noticed the exhibition is organised both chronologically and thematically. Each space contains a large wall text connecting the works around a subject; Arrivals, Pressure, Ghosts of History. On a more intimate level, the smaller exhibition texts that sit alongside each work tell the artist’s stories. The text next to Charlie Phillip’s photo series reads ‘… it’s not black history, this is British history; whether you like it or not’. The quote made me think about how much work still must be done in diversifying Britain’s mainstream collections and exhibitions. On the back page of the exhibition guide, Tate tentatively takes accountability for their colonial heritage. They say many of the works exhibited here are now included in their collection. Life Between Islands is important, urgent and long overdue for Tate.
The final rooms of the exhibition feature work produced in the last few years exploring Caribbean-British identity, community and history through a contemporary lens. In a small room to the right, a video was playing. The space was dark and I struggled to find the chair. I held back allowing my eyes to adjust to the screen showing The Otolith Group’s mesmeric film-essay INFINITY minus Infinity (2019). As I listened to the voice-over, my mind got stuck on certain linguistic phrases such as ‘Hostile environment’ and ‘I can’t breathe’. The work speaks of multitudes; slavery, governmental discrimination and neglect, the ongoing climate catastrophe. It explores the distress of the past, present and future, all ultimately linked by British Imperialism.
I left the exhibition reflecting on its varied content. Many of the works reference experiences of hostility and discrimination, but it is also an exhibition full of celebration. The works speak of solidarity, community, resilience and creativity.
Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s is showing at Tate Britain, London, until 3 April. For booking info click below:
Image: Barbara Walker, I can paint a picture with a pin (2006)
Reviewed by Amy Melling – Amy is a Curator and Creative Producer whose practice is centred around community-led arts projects. Her current research is focused on curatorial methods for exhibiting artworks outside. Amy has a keen interest in the arts and recently completed an MA in Curating and Collections at Chelsea College of Arts, UAL.