1. Neil Kenlock, Young Woman Seated on the Floor at Home in front of her Television Set
When Caribbean immigrants settled in 1950’s Britain, they brought their tropical music, languages and styles to the hostile motherland.
Jamaican-born photographer, Neil Kenlock was determined to photograph, in his words, the ‘strength and determination’ of the Black community. By documenting demonstrations, families, cane-rows and Rastafarian culture, he used his photography to combat stereotypes.
Look at the woman in this picture. Despite the financial hardship and racism of her times, she proudly sits in her front room. She wears a smart, tailored dress with coordinating accessories and immaculate make-up. Her hair is in its coiled, natural state: a symbol of defiant self-respect.
Within the photograph we can see a shining television, brimming cabinet, thriving plant collection and clashing, swirling prints of the carpet, wallpaper and curtains. Portraits featuring current fashions and symbols of status were often sent back home for relatives to admire.
Artist Michael McMillan has also depicted front rooms within his work. Here he describes specific trends of Caribbean décor:
Growing up in our front room caused me much aesthetic distress. The wallpaper and carpet never seemed to match, and Jim Reeves would be crooning from the Blue Spot radiogram on a Sunday. This room was based on the Victorian parlour and was inscribed with a formal code of behaviour because it was reserved for receiving guests. It was packed with furniture, ornaments and soft furnishings surrounded by a gallery of pictures and photographs.
Caribbean Britons could express their identities within safe spaces such as barbershops, sound-system dances and their abodes. Within the walls of these havens, we see their styles, aspirations and unforgettable homelands.
2. Sonia Boyce, She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On
British Afro-Caribbean artist, Sonia Boyce creates varied images of African diaspora women by ‘deconstructing and reconstructing … the Black female body.’
In her self-portrait, She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On, Boyce gives space to Black female presence. Boyce’s muscular arms show her power and her fixed-gaze communicates resilience. The black roses printed on her pink dress are a play on the phrase, ‘English rose’. With her vivid blue dreadlocks, Boyce asserts that Black women are beautiful too. At the top of the image, a sliver of sea and sunshine represent her distant but unforgotten roots.
Fellow artist, Claudette Johnson notes:
I’m not interested in portraiture or its tradition. I’m interested in giving space to Blackwoman presence. I am a Black woman and my work is concerned with making images of Black women ... A presence which has been distorted, hidden and denied. I’m interested in our humanity, our feelings and our politics which have been neglected … I have a sense of urgency about our ‘apparent’ absence in a space we’ve inhabited for several centuries.
3. Ingrid Pollard, Oceans Apart
Ignored by British memory, slavery haunts Caribbean-British art.
For photographer Ingrid Pollard, the Atlantic Ocean is a physical and meaningful space. Within Oceans Apart, the sea symbolises journeys: the Middle Passage navigated by slave ships and later, by Caribbean migrants of the Windrush era. For Pollard, bodies of water are also emblems of the imagination.
'Collective memory' is the shared knowledge and recollections of a particular group. Pollard taps into the Caribbean collective memory of the ocean which ebbs and flows through Caribbean art like waves. Suggesting freedom, birth, death and history, the ocean's meanings can be as fluid as water itself.
Amnesia is a constant sea. We need the historical to counterbalance. The image is a way immortality is enshrined. – Artist, John Akomfrah
4. Horace Ove, Yesterday’s Dream, Tomorrow’s Reality
From streetstyle to the Black Power movement, photographer and filmmaker Horace Ové recorded the public and private lives of his community from the inside. By focussing on realism, his photographs offered an alternative narrative to mainstream media.
Ové’s film-making frequently blends drama and documentary. His film A Hole in Babylon tells the true story of a group of men who robbed an Italian restaurant to fund a Black history school. Although the newspapers deemed the criminals to be hooligans, Ové delved into their heritages and unpicked their motivations.
Yesterday’s Dream, Tomorrow’s Reality snapshots a political rally from the front line in 1970. A distinct divide is seen between the white, uniformed police officers and the myriad Black activists. Ové was crucial in chronicling defining moments and figures at the forefront of change.
I've always been an active photographer. I live in a visual world. If there's anything going on socially or politically, I want to know about it. So the late 1960’s and early 70’s were a very busy time for me. – Horace Ové
5. Isaac Julien, Territories
To reflect their little acknowledged, diverse experiences, Caribbean-British artists must invent new modes of expression. This includes filmmaker and installation artist, Isaac Julien who uses a range of techniques to portray diaspora identity.
Set at Notting Hill Carnival, Julien’s film Territories uses experimental forms to present 1980’s Black London. Nyabinghi drum beats mingle with house rhythms. Images of Black youth overlay close-ups of the white police. The artist transforms the cinema screen into a looking-glass: a space where Black identity can be seen and race can be explored.
Dance, theatre, music, sculpture, painting; all of these different modes are encapsulated into my practice which is why I chose film as a medium for making my work. [...] I’m a poet…My work is poetic quest for a language to express the everyday experiences of people like myself. – Isaac Julien
Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now is on at Tate Britain until 3 April 2022.
Award-shortlisted writer and speaker, Jessica Wilson is the author of Sofia the Dreamer and Her Magical Afro.