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Exhibition: 'Life Between Islands - Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now'

This exhibition showcased artists from the Caribbean who later travelled to Britain and made their home there. It also features British artists who’s work has been influenced by Caribbean themes and heritage. The exhibition spans across various different mediums, including paintings, documentary photography, film, fashion, and sculpture.


“This exhibition celebrates how people from the Caribbean have forged new communities and identities in post-war Britain - and in doing so have transformed what British culture and society looks like today.”

Most artists arrived in Britain between the late 1940s and early 1960, having left the British West Indies after utilising the 1948 British Nationality Act that invited ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ to ‘return to the mother country’. Travelling from many different islands, including but not limited to Barbados, Guyana, and Jamaica, the artists found a common identity in Britain.

“Many Caribbean artists and writers advocated for the role of culture in decolonisation. They challenged the British colonial systems in which they had been born and raised and questioned the dominance of British cultural values. Artists made references to African and Indigenous Caribbean cultures through new abstract and symbolic forms. They consciously reclaimed a heritage that had been fragmented and erased by centuries of slavery and colonisation.”


Often, many artists, writers and activists would combine their talents and interests to start movements and collectives that were based on the same experiences and political solidarity. They highlighted racial inequalities as well as ensued new black identities and a modern Caribbean aesthetic.


There were over 40 different artists who's work was on display so I’ll briefly mention the few whose work stood out to me the most:


Aubrey Williams:

Aubrey Williams moved to London in 1952. By 1959 he was producing abstract paintings referencing the symbolism of Indigenous Guyanese peoples and exhibiting at London’s New Vision Centre Gallery. In 1966, he became one of the founders of the Caribbean Artists Movement.


“Several Guyanese artists and writers who migrated to Britain created abstract and surrealist artworks drawing on Amerindian (the culture of its Indigenous peoples) spiritual beliefs and visual culture. Using these references was a symbolic means of putting down roots, reconnecting with the natural world and evoking the culture of their own African ancestors.”



Frank Bowling:

Frank Bowling was born in British Guiana and moved to London in 1953 where he studied painting at the Royal College of Art after having joint the Royal Air Force. He moved to New York after graduating, where he started producing “poured paintings.” Made by pouring paint onto tilted vertical canvases, these works are about the effects of gravity and movement on colour. While this painting [Kaieteurtoo] is abstract, Bowling later named it after Kaieteur Falls, the largest single drop waterfall on earth. In 1989 he returned to Guyana where he realised that his 1980s abstract paintings evoking the Thames and English landscape traditions, also referenced his birthplace. The light on the coastal mud banks of Guyana had apparently had an abiding, unconscious influence on his work.



Althea McNish:

McNish moved to London from Trinidad and later graduated from the Royal College of Art after focusing on textiles. Her bold, self-described ‘tropical’ motifs, and bright colour palette appealed to consumers during the gloom and austerity of the post-war Britain. ‘Golden Harvest’, her most popular design, was apparently inspired by wheatfields in Essex which reminded her of sugar fields in Trinidad. McNish was a key figure, and the only female artist, in the Caribbean Artists Movement.



Lisa Brice:

Brice often references the European history of painting. She reworks scenes by artists such as John Everett Millais and Edouard Manet, which typify an objectifying male gaze. Situating these recognisable figures in new cultural contexts, Brice’s women appear empowered and autonomous. The works displayed here are set in a typical roadside bar in Port of Spain, Trinidad, where Brice spent time with her friend Emheyo Bahabba, the influential Trinidadian artist after whom two of the works are entitled. Apart from his implied presence out of frame to the right, the clientele is exclusively female. Their blue bodies relate to the artificial colours of nightlife and to Blue Devils, traditional Trinidadian Carnival characters.



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