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


Exhilarating, mighty, radical, tender, as disturbing as it’s stunning, Life Between Islands is a revelation from first to final. It follows 70 years of tumultuous historical past through art. Agonising departures and brutal arrivals, kindness, cruelty and neighborhood, rebellion, oppression and unceasing injustice: all are carried in highly effective movies and images, spectacular sculptures and work, portraits sketched on police stop-and-search reviews, even a walk-in front room the place Joyce, the imaginary inhabitant, recreates her previous dwelling right down to the crocheted doilies and velour map of Saint Vincent.

Taking part in on the classic telly is Horace Ové’s 1976 basic Stress, the primary characteristic movie by a black British director, following {the teenager} Tony, born in Britain to oldsters from Trinidad, through the cycle of academic deprivation, poverty, racism and eventual unemployment that grinds on at present. The Notting Hill setting seems all through the present – 60s images of black-white {couples} snogging exterior the Piss Home pub, and carnival in full flourish, till its violent suppression by police within the 80s – depicted in Tam Joseph’s stark portray of black helmets and riot shields closing in on a single costumed man, hunted to oblivion.

The Spirit of the Carnival, 1982 by Tam Joseph.
The Spirit of the Carnival, 1982 by Tam Joseph. {Photograph}: Wolverhampton Art Gallery © Tam Joseph

Zak Ové, son of Horace, is exhibiting two unforgettable figures – a feminine satan with cowrie eyes and legs of seaside flotsam, and a nice shaggy head of ropes, mops and wigs. Each reprise Caribbean legends as modern shamans, outlandishly menacing. The Brixton entrance room in Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s 2018 portray Remain, Thriving is wallpapered with images of the Windrush technology, whose present-day descendants sit close to a TV exhibiting breaking information of the Windrush scandal. Time runs backwards and forwards on this present.

And so do the influences and connections. Hew Locke is exhibiting the shaggy heads of Nineteenth-century British monarchs: whiter-than-white porcelain busts draped in gold and jewelled headdresses. Look nearer and you will note tiny Benin heads and Caribbean carnival masks, east African cash and the medals of empire; the ghosts of slavery and colonialism hanging over their royal heads.

One of Steve McQueen’s earliest works loops on one other telly. A one-minute fragment of Tremendous 8 courting again to 1992, it exhibits two aged West Indian males carrying potted palms from Brick Lane on the 243 bus dwelling in direction of Tottenham. Exodus is its apt title. (A startling shot of Bob Marley in Leeds seems earlier on.) And pinned excessive on a wall close by is a gilded palm frond, by the artist Blue Curry, shining like a radiant sunburst, emblem of Caribbean holidays. In reality its shine comes from spools of cassette tape laboriously and painfully stitched into every leaf on the market to vacationers.

Hew’s father, Donald Locke (1930-2010), journeyed from Guyana to art faculties in Bathtub and Edinburgh within the 50s and 60s. His work is excellent. Rising up at a time when the plantation system nonetheless existed, he later made an indelible picture of his native countryside titled Dageraad from the Air. At a distance it could be an summary canvas, completely darkish – even a pastiche of Ad Reinhardt’s all-black work – till you strategy. Squares of blackened canvas, partitioned by sharp metallic tacks and a cage-like grille, condense each the tortured historical past and the topography of the land beneath.

Remain, Thriving, 2018 by Njideka Akunyili Crosby,
‘Time runs backwards and forwards’: Stay, Thriving, 2018 by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, {Photograph}: Tate © Njideka Akunyili Crosby

The present opens with magnificent work by Locke’s Caribbean compatriots. Aubrey Williams’s canvases are laments for damaged lives and misplaced homelands, the paint itself seeming charred or skeletal. Frank Bowling’s well-known 1968 work Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman sends up US summary expressionism with its glowing verticals of inexperienced, yellow and purple, by which the outlines of African and Caribbean nations appear to float like sea wrack. Paul Dash paints himself like a Flemish grasp in a paper hat. Claudette Johnson, noting the absence of such photographs in art historical past, portrays herself as a deeply pensive reclining determine.

It’s a measure of the immense energy of Caribbean British portray that it’s under no circumstances diminished by the staggering images that run through this present like dwell information. Michael X arriving at Paddington station; Stokely Carmichael addressing the Dialectics of Liberation congress on the Spherical Home in Camden in 1968; a quartet of women on their solution to classes carrying Black Panther college luggage.

Vanley Burke’s uplifting {photograph} of younger black males balancing on a seesaw in Handsworth Park, Birmingham, in order that they seem like levitating is as basic as any shot by the titan of American documentary photographers, Gordon Parks. And no one seeing Vron Ware’s images of the Black Individuals’s Day of Motion, 2 March 1981, taken for the anti-fascist journal Searchlight, is ever more likely to overlook the grave faces of the group.

Black People’s Day of Action, 2 March 1981 by Vron Ware.
Black Individuals’s Day of Motion, 2 March 1981 by Vron Ware. {Photograph}: © Vron Ware/ courtesy of Autograph ABP, London

A march enacted with all of the solemnity of a funeral procession, this was a protest in opposition to the atrocious inaction of the police, failing to inquire into the arson assault on a home in London’s New Cross by which 13 black youngsters burned to dying. The placards spell it out with epigrammatic eloquence: “13 lifeless, nothing mentioned” and “Thatcher’s Silence Incites Violence”. One open verdict succeeded one other. No person 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 80s riots and racism develop into, too, half of the good Caribbean soundtrack of ska, dub and reggae that strikes through the art on this present. In Isaac Julien’s three-screen Paradise Omeros, the original Jamaican recording of The Tide Is Excessive yields to Derek Walcott studying from his tragic Saint Lucia epic, Omeros, because the movie washes again and forth between the shores of that golden island, the place Julien’s mother and father have been born, and the dismal, gray England “the place we begin residing”, in Walcott’s phrases, “as if to… pay for our sins”. That is the good and poignant narrative, in addition to the underlying choreography, of this present.

What it has meant to be right here – or to return dwelling, say, in Chris Ofili’s work – is the enthralling theme of Life Between Islands. Some works are humorous, even satirical, others unforgettably trenchant or poignant, as in Ingrid Pollard’s images of seashores (primarily right here, but in addition there) the place the tide measures the oceanic distance between this life and dwelling.

Most elegiac of all is Martina Attille’s 1988 movie Dreaming Rivers, by which a Caribbean lady misplaced in exile, and alone in a British bedsit, goals of her long-gone husband and departed youngsters, their faces shut, but unreal as a film, as she step by step leaves this world.

This movie runs to half an hour, screened in a small facet gallery. It must be watched proper through. So it’s with all the pieces right here. For this present is essential, mind-altering, a portrait of human life through art that can not be encapsulated in some other medium. It’s residing historical past, and not simply, because the photographer Charlie Phillips declares in a wall textual content, “black historical past, however British historical past”. Go for those who probably can, and give it on a regular basis you’ve obtained.