Historians say the Caribbean carnival tradition has some of its roots in the celebrations of liberated slaves. One theory about the elaborate costumes, familiar to anyone who has attended Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival or the Notting Hill Carnival in London, is that they originally satirized the excesses of the former masters. The point was both taking control of the streets and being seen on one’s own terms: Surveillance and stereotype are replaced with joyful exhibition.
No surprise then that a show of Caribbean diaspora art from the U.K., organized by the Tate Britain and visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario, is not a collection of abstract paintings. Life Between Islands features art from the 1950s to the present and is all about representation, artistic, political and existential.
Take, as just one example, the drawings of contemporary Birmingham artist Barbara Walker that include fine charcoal portraits of her son from different angles drawn on the police forms issued during repeated street checks, which she found hidden in his bedroom.
The Windrush generation, named for a migrant ship that arrived in 1948, represented the high-water mark of Caribbean immigration in the 1950s and 1960s before the British government passed more restrictive laws, but there were also earlier arrivals who had established an artistic community by the 1920s and 1930s.
The first section of this exhibition, starting with a massive female head carved from elm wood in 1937 by Ronald Moody, deals briefly with an older generation working in a modernist context. Artists such as Aubrey Williams, represented by surreal semi-abstractions, and colour-field painter Frank Bowling brought a distinctive approach to the art movements of the day. Williams was one of several artists acquainted with the Indigenous Amazonian culture of their native Guyana; Bowling incorporated personal and political figurative content into his work, including his cheeky take on pure abstraction, Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman.
But in this exhibition, it is the return to representation in the 1980s that liberates a younger generation to create an explosive new current in British art. Of course, there is no shortage of photojournalism, including famed images of Black activism and social life by Charlie Phillips, Horace Ové, Neil Kenlock, Vanley Burke and Dennis Morris. Yet it’s in the fine-art tradition that some of the strongest statements about representation emerge such as Sonia Boyce’s 1980s portraits, with their provocative combination of the literal and the symbolic.
One is a double self-portrait, Missionary Position II, juxtaposing a pious figure with a freer one in a colourful head wrap. Another plays cleverly with perspective as Boyce depicts herself as a figure of strength holding her family up on her raised palms.
From 1983, Claudette Johnson’s untitled and almost monochromatic pastel and gouache drawing of two women, based on photographs of people in the crowd at a protest, shows a pair of furrowed faces with expressions so ancient they look like weathered monuments.
As well as the portraits of her son, Walker contributes a highly realistic oil painting, a closeup on a young woman having her hair braided. All of these works offer the viewer direct encounters with powerful figures unbowed by racism.
The exhibition continues into the present including a large multimedia wall panel by Marcia Michael, part of her continuing The Object of My Gaze project: Against a photo mural of a lush Jamaican landscape, she hangs intimate photographs of her mother’s great body. There is also work by the Bahamian artist Blue Curry that comments on the confining expectations of making art in a tourist economy and adopts traditional materials now only used to make souvenirs. Caribbean Queen, named for the Billy Ocean song, features a giant fan of palm fronds, like the headpiece on a carnival costume, interwoven with the magnetic cassette tape.
Carnival, surveillance and representation, these themes all come together in one of the most remarkable moments of the show. Passing by a dark corner too quickly, you might mistake Chris Ofili’s painting Blue Devils as an indigo abstraction but if you spend a bit of time with the large 2014 painting, figures emerge. They are the unsettling Blue Devils of the Trinidadian carnival tradition, characters who paint their bodies blue and threaten other revellers. Here, another shadowy figure appears behind them with the distinctive checkerboard hat band worn by the British police.
Hung against a deep indigo wall to make the viewer work even harder to grasp the subject, the painting offers a distinctive metaphor for being seen, noting both the official surveillance of Black lives but also the social discounting of Black life. Here, art is the best retort.
Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto to April 1.
Michael McMillan is a British artist, scholar and teacher who turned his PhD thesis on migrant aesthetics into West Indian Front Room, a permanent installation at London’s Museum of the Home. It was remounted at the Tate Britain for the Life Between Islands exhibition of Caribbean diaspora art in 2021 and now comes to Toronto as The Front Room: Inna Toronto/6ix, better known as Gloria’s Room.
How is Gloria’s Room in Toronto different from the front room that you installed at the Tate?
The concept is very much the same: It’s the front room that emerges out of migration. It’s a cultural translation of the Victorian parlour and all of those bourgeois values related to it: respectability, propriety, decorum and so forth. And then it’s different because it marks Caribbean Canadian migration, which is the late 1970s and early 80s.
So it’s a bit later than in the U.K.?
That’s right. So, the aesthetic is much more of the eighties. At the same time, Gloria has this connection with the diaspora; she’s a nurse. Her mother was a nurse; her mother worked in the NHS, which is our institution. Caribbean women played a significant role in the National Health Service.
Is Gloria a real person or an amalgam?
She’s an amalgam. She’s a fiction, but she is based on people I may know.
You’ve mentioned it is not a children’s room; Gloria won’t let the kids dump their stuff there.
From a very pragmatic point of view, this is before mobile phones, so you didn’t know which guests would be coming around to visit. So the room always had to look immaculate because in terms of the division of labour and patriarchy who is judged about the order and cleanliness of the room? It’s the women.
It’s a woman’s room, even though her husband may use it. She commands and marshals the decor, the decoration and how one should behave in there.
Tell me about the plastic on the chairs. That’s not unique to Caribbean homes.
Apparently many people relate to it. Why do they do that? To cherish those items of furniture because they cost a lot of money. The irony is that sitting on it, your skin is going to stick to the plastic, so it’s not the most comfortable covering. But at the same time, the whole nature of the front room is not about being comfortable. It’s about proper behaviour.
There’s a sense that as migrants you’re always making do until you can do better. What you invested in is cherished for the future. Hence the plastic coverings. Hence the room being quite sacred.
At the Tate, the religious art showed a white Jesus; here we have a Black Last Supper. Where did it come from?
So I had a wonderful person over here, Dexter Bonaparte, who sources materials for film. He understands the kind of cultural specificity of the room. And he found a Black version of The Last Supper, but in transit it disappeared. I had set myself on the symbolism of that, a Black Last Supper. So I just bought another one off eBay.
When we come into the eighties, we’re signalling the emergence of a Black consciousness that’s represented in the room. It’s a disruptive development; it brings about conversation.
We are in the 1980s; there’s a colour TV set with footage of Caribana, as Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival was then called. Why is the carnival so important?
Carnival was brought over to the Caribbean from Europe during enslavement by the colonial elite. The carnival becomes appropriated by the colonized enslaved, and is used on some level to subvert the colonial elite. The early carnival was a kind of parody.
In Trinidad, carnival was banned, it was shut down. That same kind of attitude towards policing spaces where you have Black joy and dance and revelry continues today. It’s the same practice we have around the Notting Hill Carnival, the fear that when Black people congregate, there’s going to be trouble.
Did you grow up with a front parlour like this?
I did. I’m born in the U. K., my parents are from St. Vincent. It was my mother’s room, even though my dad used it. But I did feel it was a bit kitsch, kind of colonial. I was embarrassed by it because I realized that my white friends did not have a living room that looked like ours. So how I came to embrace it was that I was doing some oral histories from the Caribbean with elders, and I’m in different rooms in people’s homes, but the aesthetic is the same.
We believe we are unique, we have that unique vase and no one else has that vase. But in fact, other people have the same vase or a similar style.
That’s really fascinating. How in communities we share consciously or unconsciously a similar aesthetic in the home.
This interview has been edited and condensed.