Life Between Islands Lights up Tate Britain

Shostakovich Symphony No.12 by Aubrey William. 1981

Life Between Islands at Tate Britain is a large show, so give yourself time to peruse the wealth of Caribbean-British art from the 1950s to the present.

The exhibition opens with the old guard artists, who came to settle in Britain between the late 1940s and 1970s.  Aubrey Williams’s expressionist art grabbed my attention in the first room with  Sun and Earth 1963. Biomorphic forms recalled bones or cells, blistered oranges, browns, and blacks, a burning earth or ancient burial grounds. Death, violence, colonial rule, were themes never far from the painter’s mind for Aubrey Williams was part of The Caribbean Artist Movement (CAM) a group of black writers, poets and artists, who got together to debate and discuss colonial injustice amongst other things. For many artists there was a wish to understand the past – only in doing so – could they move forward.

In the same room, Aubrey Williams’s  Shostakovich Symphony no.12 is a slight change of tack in that he is inspired by classical music. In this musically inspired piece however Williams found parallels between Shostakovich’s apocalyptic vision and his own. Bones reappear in Williams’s busy canvas -a vertebral column is destroyed. There is debris everywhere and the burnished earth colours, disintegrate into an explosion of white paint.

Abstraction dominated the first two rooms. Denis Williams’s geometric – mosaic, Painting in Six Related Rhythms, was intriguing but inward-looking, whereas Frank Bowling’s gorgeous Kaieteurtoo 1975, was more lyrical, with its beautiful green, orange and bubble gum pink ribbons of colour spilling down a tall, narrow canvas. There were the rainbow colours reflected in the waterfalls of Bowling’s youth growing up in Guyana. 

The black and white documentary photography brings the visitor back down to earth with a bump. London of the 1960s-70s was now the homeland of artists who had been born in Britain, or had left the Caribbean as children. Horace Ové’s and Neil Kenlock’s photographs of life in the capital not only record the bane of racism and police injustice, but also the value of community, of music and love and tolerance. The next West Indian generation were forging a new identity and entering mixed marriages. In amongst this drive to find a new identity – we see the drive to seek a political voice – with the rise of the Black Power movement. Kenlock’s image of four schoolgirls sporting Black Panther bags- one with a gun sewn to its front, is not only shocking but shows to what extent some radicals were prepared to reclaim their identity and rights by force if necessary.

‘Black Panther School Bags’ by Neil Kenlock 1970

The films at the show were more arthouse than documentary. I watched Isaac Julien’s twenty-minute short, Paradise Omeros . Named after a poem by Derek Walcott, it proved totally absorbing. Julien’s enquiry into ‘creoleness’ leads him to create a story around a young man, Achille who leaves his idyllic isle to start a life with his family in London. The film is full of tension and surprises. In his efforts to form a new identity – Achille – grows apart from his own West Indian family but remains an outsider from British society. Intriguing is the young white man following Achille to his bleak housing estate. The pursuer marks crosses on the concrete walls Achille passes. What does it mean? We are encouraged to link the white man, who is of similar age to Achille – to the whipping Achille receives from his father. The reasons for the punishment, you can only guess at. What rule has Achille broken in his father’s eyes? A highly imaginative film which shows the sufferings of a young man caught in between two cultures.

In the last rooms it was back to paint. Large eye-catching blue canvases by Chris Ofili, Peter Doig’s vividly coloured landscapes with impressionistic figures. Lisa Brice’s painting of a naked woman puffing smoke through a bead curtain, was oddly alluring. Even the happy-looking cat walking before her with a fat mouse between its jaws, made me smile.

There is much to please the eye in this show and to ponder over. Many artists in this show have had to wrestle with racism, heartrending family histories and injustice, and yet the overall mood of the show is joyous, a celebration of colour, music, and dance of the Caribbean.

Highly recommended. Don’t miss it!


Light Between Islands: Caribbean – British Art 1950s – Now is on at Tate Britain until 3rd April 2022

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