Life Between Islands review – a moving portrait of British Caribbean life through art | Art and design

Euplifting, powerful, radical, tender, as disturbing as beautiful, Life between the islands is a revelation from first to last. It follows 70 years of tumultuous history through art. Scary departures and brutal arrivals, kindness, cruelty and community, uprising, oppression and relentless injustice: everything is portrayed in powerful films and photographs, spectacular sculptures and paintings, portraits sketched on police check reports, even a walk-in. The front bedroom where Joyce, the imaginary inhabitant, recreates her old home right down to the crochet doilies and velvet card of Saint-Vincent.

Playing on vintage TV is Horace Ové’s 1976 classic Pressure, the first feature film by a black British director, follows teenager Tony, born in Britain to parents originally from Trinidad, through the cycle of deprivation of education, poverty, racism and possible unemployment that plagues today. The Notting Hill setting appears throughout the show – from ’60s photos of black and white couples kissing outside the Piss House pub, and carnival in full swing, to its brutal police crackdown in the 1980s – depicted in Tam Joseph’s austere painting of black helmets and riot shields closing in on a single costumed man, chased into oblivion.

The Spirit of Carnival, 1982 by Tam Joseph. Photography: Wolverhampton Art Gallery © Tam Joseph

Zak Ové, son of Horace, shows two unforgettable characters – a female devil with cowry eyes and beach wreckage legs, and a large, shaggy head of ropes, mops and wigs. The two take on Caribbean legends as contemporary, oddly menacing shamans. The front room Brixton in Njideka Akunyili Crosby2018 painting Stay, thrive is lined with photos of the Windrush generation, whose current descendants are sitting near a television broadcasting the latest news from the Windrush scandal. Time comes and goes in this show.

And the influences and the connections too. Hew Locke shows the shaggy heads of 19th-century British monarchs: whiter-than-white porcelain busts draped in gold and jeweled headdresses. Take a closer look and you’ll see tiny Beninese heads and Caribbean carnival masks, East African coins and Empire medals; the ghosts of slavery and colonialism hovering above their royal heads.

One of Steve McQueen’s earliest works is looping on another TV. A one-minute Super 8 fragment from 1992, it shows two elderly West Indian men carrying potted palms from Brick Lane on the 243 bus to Tottenham. Exodus is its proper title. (A surprising photo of Bob Marley in Leeds appears earlier.) And pinned high to a nearby wall is a golden palm leaf, by the artist Blue Curry, shining like a beam of radiant sunshine, emblem of Caribbean holidays. In fact, its shine comes from reels of cassettes laboriously and painfully sewn into each sheet to be sold to tourists.

Hew’s father, Donald locke (1930-2010), traveled from Guyana to the art schools in Bath and Edinburgh in the 1950s and 1960s. His work is superb. Growing up during a time when the plantation system still existed, he later made an indelible image of his local campaign titled Dageraad from the air. From a distance, it can be an abstract, entirely dark canvas – even a pastiche of Reinhardt announcement‘s all black paints – until you get close. Squares of blackened canvas, partitioned off by sharp metal nails and a cage-shaped grid, condense both the tortured history and the topography of the land below.

Remain, Thriving, 2018 by Njideka Akunyili Crosby,
“Time moves forward and backwards”: Remain, Thriving, 2018 by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Photograph: Tate © Njideka Akunyili Crosby

The exhibition opens with magnificent paintings of Locke’s Caribbean compatriots. Aubrey williamsThe canvases of are lamentations for shattered lives and lost homelands, the painting itself appearing charred or skeletal. The famous work of Frank Bowling in 1968 Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman returns the American abstract expressionism with its luminous verticals of green, yellow and red, in which the contours of the countries of Africa and the Caribbean seem to drift like sea wrack. Paul Dash painted himself like a Flemish master with a paper hat. Claudette Johnson, noting the absence of such images in the history of art, presents himself as a deeply thoughtful reclining figure.

It is a measure of the immense strength of British Caribbean painting that it is in no way diminished by the astonishing photographs that run through this exhibition as live news. Michael X arriving at Paddington station; Stokely Carmichael addressing the Liberation Dialectics convention at Camden Round House in 1968; a quartet of girls on their way to class wearing Black Panther satchels.

Vanley BurkeThe uplifting photograph of young black men balancing on a swing in Handsworth Park, Birmingham so that they appear to be levitating is as classic as any shot from the titan of American documentary photographers, Gordon Parks. And no one sees Vron Ware’s photographs of Black Day of Action, 2 March 1981, taken for the anti-fascist magazine Projector, is likely to forget the serious faces of the crowd.

Black Day of Action March 2, 1981 by Vron Ware.
Black Day of Action March 2, 1981 by Vron Ware. Photograph: © Vron Ware / courtesy Autograph ABP, London

A march decreed with all the solemnity of a funeral procession, it was a protest against the atrocious inaction of the police, failing to investigate the arson of a house in New Cross in London in which 13 black adolescents were burned alive. The signs state it with epigrammatic eloquence: “Thirteen dead, nothing has been said” and “Thatcher’s silence incites violence”. One open verdict followed another. No one has ever been charged.

Who's Afraid of Barney Newman, 1968 by Frank Bowling.
Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman, 1968 by Frank Bowling. Photograph: Tate © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

Handsworth, New Cross, Broadwater, Brixton: names synonymous with riots and ’80s racism are also part of the great Caribbean soundtrack of ska, dub and reggae that runs through the art of this show. In the three screens of Isaac Julien Omeros Paradise, the original Jamaican recording of The Tide Is High gives Derek Walcott the reading of his tragic epic in Saint Lucia, Omeros, as the film moves back and forth between the shores of this golden island, where Julien’s parents were born, and the dreary, gray England “where we begin to live”, in Walcott’s words, “as if to… pay for our sins ”. It is the grandiose and poignant story, as well as the underlying choreography, of this show.

What it meant to be here – or to come home, say, in Chris Ofili’s paintings – is the thrilling theme of Life Between Islands. Some works are humorous, even satirical, others unforgettablely sharp or poignant, as in Ingrid Pollardphotographs of beaches (mainly here, but also there) where the tide measures the oceanic distance between this life and the house.

The most elegiac of all is the 1988 film by Martina Attille Dream rivers, in which a Caribbean woman lost in exile and alone in a British studio, dreams of her long-missing husband and children, their faces closed, but unreal as a movie, as she gradually leaves this world.

This film lasts half an hour, screened in a small side gallery. You have to watch it from start to finish. So it is with everything here. Because this show is crucial, overwhelming, a portrait of human life through art that cannot be encapsulated in any other medium. It’s a living story, and not just, as photographer Charlie Phillips puts it in a mural, “black history, but British history. ”Go ahead if you can and give it all the time you have.


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