This month, Tate Britain will stage Life Between Islands, a major exhibition charting the history of Caribbean-British art from the Windrush generation of the 1950s to today, which the museum’s director hopes will “de-centre our national remit and what it says about British society”.
Alex Farquharson, who is co-organising the show with the curator, writer and photographer David A. Bailey, first voiced his desire to mount such an exhibition during his interview to lead the institution in 2015. “The Caribbean connection in British art across generations is rich and fascinating in itself,” Farquharson says. “It’s also fascinating for the insights it offers on how Britain has been reshaped by the Caribbean, which is of course a consequence of how Britain—during a long and violent history—reshaped much of the Caribbean.”
He felt this story needed “to be told on a large scale” and the show is certainly ambitious, covering 70 years of artistic practice and representing more than 40 artists of Caribbean heritage as well as those inspired by the Caribbean. Among them are Donald Locke and his son Hew Locke, Claudette Johnson, Sonia Boyce, Steve McQueen, Grace Wales Bonner and Alberta Whittle.
Institutional recognition for these artists is also long overdue. Farquharson admits that “few of the artists working prior to 1990 were collected by Tate at the time”, although its collection has diversified over the past 15 years. For decades, Caribbean-British artists were overlooked by the UK’s art establishment and, from this marginalised position, formed their own groups, such as the Caribbean Artists Movement in the 1960s and the BLK Art Group from 1979 to 1984. The Tate exhibition will be framed by these groups and key shows such as those curated by the artist Lubaina Himid in the 1980s, which championed Black women artists.
Farquharson points out that the Guyanese artists Denis Williams, Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling—who came to the UK from what was still a British colony in the late 1940s and early 1950s—all had commercial shows in London in the 50s. “But that interest, that support, petered out in the early 60s,” he says. “I think that is a consequence of the rise of Pop Art and Colour Field painting, whose internationalism was focused on New York. As London began to swing, it became more obsessed with itself, less global and, I think it’s fair to say, more white. I think a similar thing happened in Britain in the 1990s.”
Absence of images
Life Between Islands comes at a time of widespread interest in the work of artists of Caribbean heritage. At next year’s Venice Biennale (23 April-27 November 2022), Boyce will be the first Black woman to represent the UK, while Alberta Whittle will represent Scotland.
With Tate’s telling of Caribbean-British art history billed as a “landmark group exhibition”, the question is whether it can reach a more diverse audience than the largely white and middle-class art-going public. But at least it attempts to redress the total absence of Caribbean cultural and political history that Whittle found on arriving in the UK as a teenager: “I grew up going to museums in Barbados, but when I came to the UK there was such an absence of images of or by Caribbean people in galleries. Yet our histories are so intertwined. I think, historically, it has been a deliberate exclusion of a history that’s really quite uncomfortable for most people to think about.”