Life Between Islands – Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now at Tate Britain – Review – ★★★★★
Life Between Islands is a spectacular, frank but joyous, mixed-media celebration of the British-Caribbean diaspora that is long overdue
Patricia Hamilton (Queen Mary University of London) joined me to tell me some of the stories that the exhibition brought back. It was a fascinating slice of oral history for me, and I’ve tried to include some quotes for you through this review.
Chris Ofili’s Pan-African ‘Union Black’ flag (2003) flies high above Tate Britain for this eye-popping, time travelling exhibition featuring 46 artists’ work across painting, textiles, installation, video, sculpture and photography.
The exhibition entrance foyer gives you a useful potted context, from CLR James to Stuart Hall – it’s worth reading to expand and rejig your memory.
The exhibition is big, with 10 rooms of art from colourful paintings and politically charged anti-racist photography to Michael McMillan’s life-size, divinely kitsch 1970s living room, resplendent in garish yellow. This experiential element felt like the exhibition at its most relevant and Instagrammable.
Sonia Boyce steals the show with ‘She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose)’ – an epic painting of family ties – and her video installation ‘Crop Over’. On a par is Lisa Brice’s ‘Mid Day Drinking Den, After Embah II’, which sizzles with a hot pink cat which explodes onto your retinas.
Isaac Julien’s intense contextual history of Notting Hill Carnival, ‘Territories’, is arresting and worth spending the whole 25 minutes in the room. The film shows scenes from the carnival’s history and takes it beyond the white gaze RP news reports of the 70s to dig deeper into its significance as a political protest. A highlight intersperses toasting with scratching a dub record, to hypnotic effect.
Hew Locke’s ‘Souvenir’ series of embellished golden busts of Colonial leaders like Queen Victoria is ornate and beautiful, smothering the rulers in gold. Much of the exhibition is truly eye-popping, colours collide and there’s enough shiny things to keep kids amused too.
The show has a few flaws: the sheer volume of work displayed sometimes feels a little slapdash with epic paintings like Tam Joseph’s ‘The Spirit of the Carnival’ awkwardly tucked into a corner. The repeated use of screens opposite framed glass works means unsightly reflections, and this seems like a rookie curatorial error.
But overall the exhibition is a colourful, must-see reminder of the importance of immigration from the Caribbean to our fractured isle in dark times.