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Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now review

  • Art
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Life Between Islands
Denzil Forrester Jah Shaka 1983. Collection Shane Akeroyd, London © Denzil Forrester

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

British culture has been endlessly shaped and reshaped by Caribbean immigration for 70 years. And this show – exploring the work of Caribbean British artists – is all about how without it, this would be a very, very different, and probably very boring, country.

It kicks off in the 1950s with the first wave of immigration from those islands to this one, with artists like Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling, both born in Guyana but working over here. Williams is all hazy, washed-out abstraction, Bowling is all aesthetics colliding with political ire. Then you get John Lyons swirling paintings that look like Van Gogh has melted, and Paul Dash reimagining Picasso’s Blue Period with Black figures. All these painters take the boring old Western art canon and fill it with their own ideas.

But the show is at its best when the Black British experience is pushed right up in your face. Horace Ové and Neil Kenlock’s photographs are clear, crisp, stark documents of political life for young Black people in the UK. There’s a Union Jack/Swastika mashup that’s been torn to shreds by Eddie Chambers, Tam Joseph’s jaw-dropping image of a carnival masquerader being kettled by the police, and Denzil Forrester’s horrifying image of a man who was killed in police custody, shown next to his painting of a west London dub club. That’s the duality at play in this show: people who want to dance, think and live freely, but who are stuck in a society riven with violence, racism and lack of acceptance. 

This is an awesome, powerful look at the often vicious reality of the Black Caribbean experience in the UK

Combine all that with Keith Piper and Donald Locke’s brilliant approaches to tackling the legacies of slavery, and Claudette Johnson’s searing portraits of Black women, and you have an awesome, powerful look at the often vicious reality of the Black Caribbean experience in the UK. And with police violence and the far right both still ever-present, it remains totally relevant today.

But in the middle of it all is a big room of Peter Doig paintings, followed by works by Lisa Brice and Chris Ofili. They’re all gorgeous images, I genuinely love all three artists. But they’re not from the Caribbean, and two of them aren’t even Black. I get that this bit is about dialogue – all three of them work or have worked in Trinidad – but it’s still incredibly jarring after everything you’ve just seen. It just felt totally incongruous within the show’s big narrative to me.

The rest of the show also feels thrown together and disjointed, it just becomes a mess, with narrative threads that lead nowhere. Maybe this should have been two separate exhibitions, or maybe they should’ve just narrowed their focus. 

But when this show’s good, it’s a wild celebration. It’s heady and aggressive and shocking and beautiful and heartbreaking, and it makes you damn grateful for immigration.

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


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