This is an enormous exhibition for Tate Britain and full to the brim with colour, music and sounds which conjure the sunshine of the West Indies which contrast with the darker experiences of the ‘Windrush generation‘ who have done so much to influence British culture. You can’t shy away from the history of slavery, the inequality, the racism which existed so unchecked in the last century; and the recent appalling treatment by the Home Office of Windrush ‘children’. This broad-based show brings the inheritance of social change and challenge into sharp focus.
This, above, is one of the last paintings on show. It is by Njideka Akunyili Crosby (born 1983) entitled Remain, Thriving. It’s a work on paper made with acrylic paint, transfer print, coloured paper and pencil. It imagines a gathering of the grandchildren of the ‘Windrush generation’ and references the Windrush scandal of 2018.
The exhibition opens with artists who arrived in the UK between the late 1940s and early 1960s. They’d been invited to ‘return to the mother country’ and nearly half a million people left the West Indies to settle in the UK. Writers, artists and activists highlighted inequalities and established new Black identities – a modern Caribbean aesthetic.
The howl of anger is clearly heard through some of the work. The unfair treatment of newly arrived Caribbean people shamefully highlights the latently Colonial attitudes within British society. It’s painful to look at photographs of riots, protests, and cruelty meted out upon the new arrivals and their families. However, it’s so fascinating to see the way Caribbean culture quickly established itself, especially in areas of West London, and the carnival tradition was established in Notting Hill.
However, all was not straightforward despite the good intentions of introducing carnival life to London’s summer bank holiday experience. The police felt threatened by large gatherings of Black youths. This is well represented in a painting by Tam Joseph entitled The Spirit of the Carnival, below. It shows a masquerader surrounded by a snarling dog and crowds of police brandishing shields.
One comes away from this show the the clamour of colour fixed in the mind’s eye and a feeling that an ancient culture, which pre-dates slavery and colonialism is being given a chance to bloom and show its origins within this fascinating exhibition.
Life Between Island is on show at Tate Britain until 3rd April 2022