Sonia Boyce, 'She Ain't Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose)’, oil pastel and pastel on paper, 1986
Sonia Boyce, 'She Ain't Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose)’, oil pastel and pastel on paper, 1986

The Caribbean Condensed: Life Between Islands at the Tate Britain

Title:
Life Between Islands

Times:
Mon - Sun 10:00 - 18:00

Venue:
Tate Britain
Millbank
London
Other
SW1P 4RG

Braid-draped plane seats, steel pan sets, and sketches for graphic novels, make up just some of the media on show in Life Between Islands. Five ‘chapters’, featuring over 40 artists, begin to tell the stories of 70 years of cross-cultural connections between Britain and the Caribbean, navigating colonialism, Creolisation, migration, and diasporic identity.

Althea McNish, 'Golden Harvest’, cotton, 1959
Althea McNish, ‘Golden Harvest’, cotton, 1959

McNish’s textiles, which draw as much from the wheatfields of Essex and the works of Van Gogh as ‘exotic’ Trinidadian sugarcane, are testament to the complex, often generative, two-way exchanges of empires. We hear them in The Paragons’ The Tide is High and liberal use of French that flows from Isaac Julien’s three-screen film throughout the exhibition space.

The Caribbean’s position as a global crossroads is visible in Aubrey Williams’ works after Russian musicians, and Sonia Boyce’s (1962) simultaneous shots of Barbados plantation houses and West Yorkshire’s Harewood House, the ancestral home of enslaver Henry Lascelles.

Chris Ofili, ‘Blue Devils’, oil paint and charcoal on canvas, 2014
Chris Ofili, ‘Blue Devils’, oil paint and charcoal on canvas, 2014

Life Between Islands cleverly uses space to challenge the objectification and commodification of the Black body. Towering oils and ‘unfinished’ Black bodies take up space both literally and rhetorically, reclaiming the attention and autonomy they have so long been deprived. Meanwhile, small black-and-white photographs document the intimate details of life in London, from Charlie Phillips’ Notting Hill series, to Neil Kenlock’s Desmond’s Hip City, an ode to the first Black-owned record shop, in Brixton.

The large black plantation-prison complex of Donald Locke’s Dageraad from the Air (1978-1979) embodies the scale of colonial brutality. Elsewhere, sensitive portraits of Barbara Walker’s own son juxtapose with the material on which they are drawn – his casually strewn stop-and-search forms, documents of routine racial profiling, and mundane, impersonal interactions with Birmingham’s police.

Barbara Walker, ‘Series 2 I can paint a picture with a pin’, ink on digital image, 2006
Barbara Walker, ‘Series 2 I can paint a picture with a pin’, ink on digital image, 2006

The need for such dense curation reveals how much British-Caribbean history – and art history – has been woefully overlooked by elite institutions and society. The exhibition’s diverse range reflects the makers’ diverse life experiences. Windrush features comparatively little, likely to free space for other, lesser-known histories, like the formative intersectional and interdisciplinary efforts of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement (CAM) (1966-1972).

But Life Between Islands risks losing some viewers in its overwhelming range and reams of basic context-setting. The long lists of names, events, and dates in its labels mark a stark difference to those of Lubaina Himid, now on show across the Thames at the Modern. (There is, however, a change in tone from her feature in chapter three, with fewer works over more space).

Sonia Boyce, 'She Ain't Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose)’, oil pastel and pastel on paper, 1986
Sonia Boyce, ‘She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (Some English Rose)’, oil pastel and pastel on paper, 1986

But despite the exhibition’s context-dense captions, the institution’s own colonial connection is relegated to the final page of the small exhibition catalogue, and risks being overlooked entirely. Henry Tate, the Tate’s founding benefactor, was a sugar refiner whose wealth was built on the labour of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean, and later Indian and Chinese indentured labour.

Chris Ofili’s Union Black (2003), soaked with the red, green, and black of the pan-African tricolour, will wave over the Britain until April, but this alone will not suffice as a long-term, historical reckoning or display of the Tate’s roots.

Furthermore, Life Between Islands risks reifying the trope that Black art is only important because of its racial content, rather than of itself (see the likes of McKittrick and Sharpe on ‘Black life beyond race’). It is politically important – and joyful, with works like John Lyons’ Carnival Spectator (2007) paying homage to the colour of the Caribbean festival. Overhearing visitors remarking their shared furniture in the golden-papered front room, I understood the exhibition’s most important role – encouraging community.

Michael McMillan, 'Joyce's Front Room’, installation, 2021
Michael McMillan, ‘Joyce’s Front Room’, installation, 2021

Being overwhelmed is the point of Life Between Islands. We should feel overcome by the sheer amount of information, and by how much of it might be new to us. We should feel the need to return a thousand times over, to have any chance of remembering all that we’ve seen.

Captions referring to Paul Gilroy (‘Black Atlantic’) and George Lamming (‘we became West Indian in London’) should spark our intrigue, and encourage us to select one of the many books lining the shop on exit – to educate ourselves further, and fill the empty spaces in our own imaginations.

And if that is Life Between Islands’ intention, then it certainly succeeds.

With thanks to Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) for this review. Jelena is an audio producer and freelance journalist, who makes content at the intersections of intercultural political history and the arts. They are the producer of EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of Empires through artworks.

Images Tate Press.

Share this page

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Sign up for Artmag’s free weekly newsletter!

Join us every Friday morning for the latest art news, art openings, exhibitions, live performances, interviews and stories + top UK and international art destinations.