the long road to recognition


In December, Tate Britain will stage Life between the islands (December 1-April 3, 2022), a major exhibition retracing the history of Caribbean-British art from the Windrush generation from the 1950s to the present day, whose director hopes to “decenter our national mission and what it says about British society ”.

Alex Farquharson, who co-organizes the exhibition with curator, writer and photographer David A. Bailey, first expressed his desire to mount such an exhibition during his interview to become director of the Museum of London in 2015. “The Caribbean connection in British art across generations is rich and fascinating in itself, ”says Farquharson. “It is also fascinating for the information it offers on how Britain was reshaped by the Caribbean, which is of course a consequence of the way Britain – over a long history and violent – reshaped much of the Caribbean. “

He felt that this story needed to “be told on a grand scale” and the show is certainly ambitious, spanning 70 years of artistic practice and representing more than 40 artists from Caribbean heritage as well as those inspired by the Caribbean. Among them are Donald Locke and his son Hew Locke, Claudette Johnson, Sonia Boyce, Steve McQueen and Grace Wales Bonner.

Institutional recognition of these artists is also long overdue. Farquharson admits that “few artists working before 1990 were brought together by the Tate at the time,” although his collection has diversified over the past 15 years. In 2018, artist Rasheed Araeen accused Tate of “persistent institutional racism” by rejecting his book and exhibition project for an inclusive history, The whole story: art in post-war Britain. Farquharson does not disagree: “It struck me when I arrived at Tate Britain that Chris Ofili had been the only black artist to have a solo exhibition there. [in 2010]. “

For decades, Caribbean-British artists have been overlooked by the British art establishment and, from this marginalized position, have formed their own groups, such as the Caribbean Artists Movement in the 1960s and the BLK Art Group in 1979. to 1984. The Tate exhibition will be framed by these groups and key exhibitions such as those organized by artist Lubaina Himid in the 1980s, which championed black female artists. In a more recent story, Farquharson cites the influence of artists Peter Doig, Ofili, Hurvin Anderson and Lisa Brice in the early 2000s on the CCA7 residency program in Port of Spain, Trinidad, which led Doig and Ofili to s’ permanently install there.

From Windrush to Venice

Life between the islands comes at a time when there is a keen interest in the work of Caribbean heritage artists. Last year Veronica Ryan and Thomas J. Price were commissioned by the London Borough of Hackney to create new public sculptures celebrating the Windrush generation. Ryan’s full-scale Caribbean fruit trio was unveiled this month, followed next June by Price’s work. (In the meantime, he has a solo show at Hauser & Wirth Somerset.) And at the 2022 Venice Biennale, Boyce will be the first black woman to represent the UK, Alberta Whittle will represent Scotland while Simone Leigh will be the first. black woman to represent the United States.

Alberta Whittle’s Matrix Movements (2019) Courtesy of the artist and Copperfield, London

Born in Barbados and based in Glasgow, Whittle has four works featured in Life Between the islands. Her practice explores the duality of her identity and Barbados plays a central role: she spent confinement last year on the island making her film. RESET, co-commissioned for the Frieze Artist Award 2020 and currently on display at Jupiter Artland near Edinburgh. At this year’s Frieze London, Whittle has a solo booth with Copperfield London, with a wall of bronze casts of his own language. “I was thinking about the fact that I have no idea my native language and how our languages ​​communicate our ancestral stories,” she says.

A student at the Glasgow School of Art ten years ago, Whittle was “the only black artist in the course,” she says. “It’s only been in the last five years that there have been more black students.” Grenada-born Cornwall-based artist Denzil Forrester, who is also featured in the Tate exhibition, had a similar experience in the early 1980s when he studied at the Royal College of Art in London. “I was the only one in my year to be black,” says Forrester. “Coming from West Indian, black or mestizo heritage, it was unusual to go to art school. “

Forrester painted his entire life, drawing from the darkness of London’s underground nightclubs as studies for his vivid large-scale paintings of writhing bodies. In the mid-1990s, he organized several exhibitions, The Caribbean Connection, at the Black-Art Gallery. But commercial success only came recently, when he retired from teaching at Morley College and moved to Cornwall in his 60s.

Forrester had applied to galleries in the 1990s and early 2000s, but “nobody was interested,” he says. “I think my job was ‘too dark’.” A turning point came in 2016 when Doig requested a meeting. This sparked Forrester’s late-career boom, as Doig put on shows for him that year at Tramps in London and White Columns in New York, and then at the Jackson Foundation in St Just, Cornwall, in 2018. Forrester says he was courted by a few “smart” people. Mayfair art agents’ after that though, on Doig’s advice, signed on with the Stephen Friedman Gallery.

London is rocking inward

Farquharson points out that Guyanese artists Denis Williams, Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling – who came to the UK from what was still a British colony in the late 1940s and early 1950s – all had trade shows in London in the 1950s. “But that interest, that support, died out in the early 1960s,” he says. “I think it’s a consequence of the rise of Pop Art and color field painting, whose internationalism was focused on New York. As London started to swing she became more self-obsessed, less global and, I think it’s fair to say, whiter. I think a similar thing happened in Britain in the 1990s.

Interest in Caribbean-British artists didn’t really start to spread until around 2016, when the Black Lives Matter movement went global. “When my career took off in 2016, a lot of Caribbean descendant artists started to gain recognition,” observes Forrester, pointing to the 2015-16 Guildhall Art Gallery exhibition, No Color Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960-1990, like a pivotal moment.

Hurvin Anderson’s Jungle Garden (2020) is currently in an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Thomas Dane Gallery Photo: Ben Westoby; © Hurvin Anderson; Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery

London dealer Thomas Dane agrees that in recent years “there has been a turnaround, and a very important one, from watching people who may not have had the attention. [from institutions and the market]”. This week his gallery opened an exhibition of recent paintings by Hurvin Anderson (Reverberation, until December 4) depicting an overgrown hotel complex in Jamaica, his parents’ homeland. It was Doig, quite a career maker, who suggested that Dane visit the artist’s studio 20 years ago: “He didn’t have a gallery, he had to drive a van to earn money. money, so I sponsored him for six months so he could focus on his painting, ”Dane says. He gave Anderson his first solo show in 2003 and has worked with him ever since.

Notably, Steve McQueen, the Oscar-winning filmmaker and artist who recently paid tribute to British Caribbean communities in the film series Small Ax, was Dane’s very first artist. “Hurvin and Steve are really the backbone of the gallery,” says Dane. “They are both very proud of their Caribbean heritage, but also of this country. I think it really shows in their work.

With Tate’s account of Caribbean-British art history billed as a “historic group exhibit,” the question is whether it can reach a more diverse audience than the largely white and white art audience. middle class. “It’s up to Tate to raise awareness and bring in the schools,” suggests Dane. He salutes the McQueen’s model Year 3 project at Tate Britain, in which he exhibited at the museum photographs of more than 75,000 schoolchildren in London between late 2019 and early 2021. “The aim was to show the extraordinary diversity of London and the Great Britain. Brittany as a whole. “

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