In Review

Life Between Islands: a tender portrayal of Caribbean-British identity

This is an ‘exhilarating’ and ‘thought-provoking’ Tate Britain exhibition

Tate Britain’s ambitious new survey of Caribbean-British art has a simple premise, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. While the Caribbean diaspora’s musical and literary contribution to British culture is rightly and “widely acknowledged”, the achievements of visual artists with ties to the region are not.

This “sensitive, level-headed and rhetoric-free” show is determined to provide a corrective. Bringing together work by 46 artists from four generations, it charts the course of Caribbean art in this country from the 1950s to the present day, and is by turns angry, defiant, joyful and tender.

The show covers a huge range of different styles and subject matter, taking in painting, photography, film, installation art and even fashion design to demonstrate the ways in which Caribbean-British artists have explored questions of identity, politics and everyday life – in the process doing much to change perceptions of art and culture in the UK. The result is a “serious, complex and difficult show, full of uncomfortable imagery”.

The show is “exhilarating, mighty, radical, tender, as disturbing as it is beautiful”, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. In its course, we see everything from portraits sketched on 1980s police stop-and-search reports to artist Michael McMillan’s recreation of a Caribbean-British front room, a work complete with “crocheted doilies and a velour map of Saint Vincent”.

Notting Hill features often, from 1960s pictures of black-white couples kissing while the carnival is in full swing to Tam Joseph’s “stark painting of black helmets and riot shields closing in on a single costumed man”. Frank Bowling’s Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman (1968), sends up abstract expressionism with green, yellow and red African-Caribbean stripes. Much more recently, Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Remain, Thriving depicts a British-Caribbean family gathered in front of a TV showing breaking news of the 2018 Windrush scandal.

If the exhibition makes one thing clear, it’s that artists of Afro-Caribbean descent in Britain have not had an easy time, said Mark Hudson in The Independent. For the most part, we learn, the attitude of both the art world and society at large has been one of “overwhelming indifference”, if not “outright hostility”.

Neil Kenlock’s photographs of Black Power activists evoke horrific episodes of 1970s police brutality and racism; Donald Locke’s sculpture Trophies of Empire (1972-74), meanwhile, consists of a cabinet filled with rows of “phallic” lead forms representing bullets. Uneasiest of all is Keith Piper’s Go West Young Man, a “punkish” 1987 photo-collage which furiously invokes “the Atlantic slave trade, racist lynchings, bodybuilding and British tabloid newspapers”.

Nevertheless, there’s no shortage of uplifting art here, from Denzil Forrester’s Jah Shaka (1983), a painting which glorifies the eponymous reggae sound system with “near-religious reverence”, to a “choice” selection of works by Hurvin Anderson, arguably “the most significant painter working in Britain today”. The veteran Birmingham photographer Vanley Burke also brings “a tremendous warmth” to his images of life in Handsworth.

The variety, subtlety and compassion of these diverse bodies of work is characteristic of this “joyous, thought-provoking” show. It’s “an absolute must-see exhibition”.

Tate Britain, London SW1 (020-7887 8888, tate.org.uk). Until 3 April

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