by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Refreshing Wind of Change


By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 4 March 2022
Tate, London
Self-portrait by Paul Dash, 1979
 

 

 

During the 18th century, the Caribbean and North America lay at the heart of Britain's imperial enterprise. So valuable were plantation islands that British ministers seriously thought of handing over to France the vast territories of Canada in exchange for the single, sugar-rich island of Guadeloupe.

But following the loss of the American Colonies, British interests gradually shifted to India and the East, and Britain's Caribbean islands found themselves increasingly on the fringes of imperial attention. Nonetheless, since the majority of their populations were originally slaves from West Africa or indentured labourers from Asia, who had largely lost touch with their homelands, they remained, in language, culture and religion, the most Anglicized of all the non-European subjects of the Empire.

Most of these island populations had little contact with each other and even less with Britain until the mid-20th century, but an education system based on the British model promoted an Anglocentric identity. The writer and activist Stuart Hall, born in Jamaica in 1932, arrived in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951. He called his posthumous memoirs: 'Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands' (2017), reflecting a typical sense of familiarity with the notional 'mother country' and feelings of alienation on actually encountering it.

Hall's title is echoed in that of an absorbing and timely exhibition at Tate Britain: 'Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now', curated by David A. Bailey and Alex Farquharson.

With opportunities for studying art in the Caribbean extremely limited, aspiring artists could only properly advance their studies if they could get to Britain. A pioneer was the Jamaican-born Ronald Moody, who arrived in London in 1923 to study dentistry, but enthralled by the Egyptian sculptures at the British Museum, took up carving, also drawing on Caribbean and Asian traditions, to produce impressive works, such as 'Johanaan' (1936).

'Savacou', the name of Moody's sculpture of the bird-like Carib God of Thunder, was adopted as the title of a journal published by the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), founded in 1966 by a younger generation of Caribbeans to bring writers and artists together for meetings and exhibitions.

For many, coming from widely scattered Caribbean communities, it was the experience of finding themselves in Britain that provided an impetus to forge a common identity. As the Barbados-born novelist George Lamming put it, 'we became West Indian in London'.

Another key figure of a younger generation was the Trinidad-born Althea McNish. She was 27 when she came to London to study printmaking. With the encouragement of one of her teachers, Eduardo Paolozzi, went on to transform her paintings into vibrantly colourful textiles, winning commissions from Liberty's, Heal's and Dior. In 1966 she designed the fabrics for the Queen's wardrobe for her official visit to the Caribbean. An active member of CAM, she maintained that: 'Everything I did, I saw it through a tropical eye.'

Paul Dash moved to Britain to join his family from Barbados in 1957 at the age of eleven. He developed his natural gifts in weekly art classes and went on to the Chelsea School of Art, where he found himself oppressed by the worst kind of arrogant, modish group-think. As he recalled: 'The Staff at Chelsea didn't take kindly to my love of more traditional figurative art-making practices and I simply couldn't settle. Eventually, in the second year whilst painting a complex carnival piece, a member of staff stood behind me and pointedly said: 'Figurative art is dead, it went out with CÉzanne'. When he left the room, I turned it upside down and painted an abstract over it.'

Profoundly disillusioned, Dash found a job teaching art in a secondary school, and was later to win a post as a senior lecturer in art education at Goldsmiths. Yet he continued to paint and since retiring in 2011 has been able to do so full-time, many of his pictures still revolving around carnival and festive gatherings.

Carnival is one of the most characteristic manifestations of popular culture in the Caribbean, though varying from island to island. Held in Trinidad, for example, as a pre-Lent festival, in Barbados it is called Crop Over and staged in the summer at the end of the sugar harvest. On some pre-Abolition estates, Carnival was the occasion for slaves to ape and mock the fine clothes and affectations of plantation owners - and its banning could lead to riots. It remains an inspiration for many artists of Caribbean heritage in Britain and for entire communities in the creation of costumes and festive floats.

In Trinidad, some of the revellers from the village of Paramin paint their bodies blue and armed with pitchforks playfully menace other carnival-goers and frighten children. These Blue Devils, inspired the Blue Rider series of paintings by Chris Ofili, which he worked on for over a decade. Lisa Brice, who was born in Cape Town but now divides her time between London and Trinidad, has also taken up this blue theme. Her arresting female figures, inspired by both the female models of 19th-century painters such as Manet and Millais and the local carnivalesque Blue Devils, are infused with the lurid blue and red neon light of roadside bars in Port of Spain in Trinidad.

The Notting Hill Carnival was founded in 1959 by the Trinidadian Claudia Jones, partly as a reaction to the Notting Hill riots the year before, during which white hooligans attacked the local Caribbean population. The Carnival has since grown into the largest street festival in Europe. The Jamaican-born photographer Charlie Philips made a remarkable record of the Carnival in the late 1960s and of heartening instances of harmonious interracial mixing in the area at that time.

Heavy-handed policing was a major factor in provoking the violent confrontations between the police and black youths that occurred at the Carnival in the late 1970s. Dominican-born Tam Joseph's 'The Spirit of Carnival' (c.1982), a powerful image of a solitary figure in colourful masquerade encircled by helmeted, shield-bearing constables, captured the feelings of a community that often felt under siege by the authorities, but nonetheless has a wry comic edge.

Outstanding for her draughtsmanship is Barbara Walker, who grew up in a Jamaican family in Birmingham, where she still lives. She has made haunting and thought-provoking drawings of her son, seen from behind, on carbon copies of stop-and-search forms issued to him by the West Midland's Police. Her interest in Black History and the individuals who made it are reflected in her portraits of black veterans who served with the British Armed Forces, such as 'Josiah' 2016, drawn on the ghostly backdrops of war-time recruiting posters. As she has observed of her work: 'Much of my practice is based on my love of drawing and the ways in which a drawing is such an affirmative statement. There are also hugely emotional aspects, when a drawing seeks to emphasize the personhood, the humanity of the sitter.'

Ingrid Pollard, who came to Britain from Guyana as a child, often uses combinations of photographs and texts to investigate feelings of belonging and separation, the ordinariness of black lives in Britain and awareness of difference. Her 'Oceans Apart' (1989) features photographs of visits to the beach on both sides of the Atlantic, which divides many Caribbean families, framed with collages of historic prints of slave ships and press images of the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948.

In recent times for a number of artists making the trans-Atlantic journey in the opposite direction has been highly productive, opening up new horizons. Having spent part of his childhood in Trinidad, the Scottish painter Peter Doig, whose work is clearly influenced by Gauguin and Munch, moved there in 2002. In 2016 he collaborated with Nobel-prize winning St Lucian poet Derek Walcott on a publication, 'Morning Paramin', that brought together fifty of Doig's paintings and Walcott's poems inspired by them.

Isaac Julien, also of St Lucian parentage, used Walcott's epic Homeric poem 'Omeros' as the starting point for his immersive and suggestive 3-screen video 'Paradise Omeros' (2002), which shifts between the sea-girt tropical lushness of a Caribbean island and a bleak, grey concrete English housing estate.

Chris Ofili, who represented Britain at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, moved to Trinidad in 2005. And for Hurvin Andersen, who was born in Birmingham of Jamaican parents, a residency at the Caribbean Contemporary Arts centre in Trinidad in 2002 proved a turning point in his career. Since then he has pursued 'a sustained exploration of the intricacies of Caribbean post-colonial life'. Among the fruits of this has been a series of striking landscape paintings, such as 'Hawksbill Bay' (2020), featuring abandoned and derelict hotel developments on the north coast of Jamaica that are gradually being swallowed up by the surrounding jungle.

Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s - Now; Tate Britain, London; 1 December 2021 - 3 April 2022


First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022