Life Between Islands review: Joyous, thought-provoking and beautifully put together

The Tate Britain’s exhibition of Caribbean-British art is an absolute must-see

Mark Hudson
Wednesday 01 December 2021 06:30
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<p>Aubrey Williams’s ‘Shostakovich Symphony no 12, Opus 112’, 1981 </p>

Aubrey Williams’s ‘Shostakovich Symphony no 12, Opus 112’, 1981

The past few years have seen numerous exhibitions with what might be called “and about time” factor, and they’ve generally been shows bringing belated recognition to veteran Black artists. It was “about time” we saw decent surveys for the Guyana-born London painter Frank Bowling (at Tate Britain in 2019) and for Lubaina Himid, Zanzibar-born winner of the 2017 Turner Prize (currently showing at Tate Modern). This, however, is the “and about time” exhibition to beat all others. It seems incredible we’ve had to wait till now for a full survey of Caribbean-British art, given the massive impact Caribbean culture has had on just about every aspect of British life.

Yet from the outset the exhibition has you wondering precisely what it means by the term Caribbean-British art. Is it art produced by British artists of Caribbean origin, regardless of whether their work pertains to the Caribbean – making this a show in effect of Black British art? Is it the work of artists from Caribbean former British colonies, be they of Africa, Indian, Chinese or even white European descent? Or is it art created in the Caribbean by British artists? The answer seems to be something of all of these, with occasionally perplexing results.

The principle thread, however, is the struggle of African-Caribbean people in Britain to find a voice and a platform in the visual arts against a background of overwhelming indifference and sometimes outright hostility from white British society in general and the British art world in particular.

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