Life Between Islands Is A Must-See Exhibition Of British Art

Life Between Islands, Tate Britain ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan

BY TABISH KHAN

Tam Joseph’s powerful Spirit of Carnival. © Tam Joseph

A Notting Hill Carnival masked performer is a dancing, shimmering figure of energy in a painting by Tam Joseph. It should be a moment of joyous celebration. Yet on all sides police officers are closing in with riot shields, and a vicious police dog lunges at the performer.

This claustrophobic and politically punchy artwork is one of many impactful artworks in Life Between Islands, an exhibition at Tate Britain recognising the huge influence that British-Caribbean artists have had on the wider art scene over the last 40 years.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment appears to be rising both in the UK and all over the world, it’s more important that ever to recognise the fantastic contribution to art made by those who came to the UK as part of the Windrush Generation, as well as the many generations of British-Caribbean artists whose creativity makes British art so much richer.

Michael McMillan’s recreation of a West Indian front room. Copyright Tate Photography.

Over 40 artists feature in the show, both younger and more established, with far too many highlights to list them all. They range across painters, film makers and photographers, including Charlie Phillips whose portrait of a mixed race couple in 1967 was seen as out of the ordinary.

Two of my favourite pieces in the show are hard-hitting works sited next to each other. Both the sculptures of Hew Locke and the drawings of Barbara Walker deal with Britain’s colonial history. Hew Locke takes busts of colonial-era British monarchs and adorns them with Carnival-esque regalia, so we see Queen Victoria rocking a frilly gold ensemble with references to British colonialism embedded within.

Barbara Walker takes recruitment posters that were used to recruit soldiers from the wider British Empire, and draws the faces of Black soldiers on them, in recognition of the many Black soldiers who died protecting Britain across both world wars.

Edward VII in Carnival-esque regalia. Courtesy Hew Locke and Hales Gallery.

It’s a wide range of artists on display, and if I ask myself whether every artwork leaves a lasting impression, then the answer is no. But if you were to ask me is this an important exhibition that everyone should see? Then I would say most definitely, yes.

Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art – 1950s-Now is on at Tate Britain until 3 April 2022. Tickets are £16 for adults.


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