TOAfter the Notting Hill and Nottingham riots of 1958, which came after a series of racist attacks on Black communities, Trinidadian-born journalist and activist Claudia Jones responded by putting on a series of cultural events that would later be recognized as a precursor to Notting Hill Carnival. Jones said that she wanted the celebrations, held in St Pancras Town Hall, to “wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths”. Famously, the slogan for this first carnival was: “a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom”.
Because we often use art to find moments of joy and escape from the drudgery of everyday life, there is a temptation to see art as something that transcends politics. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. As Jones observed, it is precisely art’s capacity for joy that makes it inherently political; the choice to keep surviving, laughing, creating and partying in the face of oppression. For me, much of art’s political significance also lies in its ability to record our subjective realities across time. While no one is guaranteed a widespread audience for their work, almost anyone can create art or engage in culture. For Caribbean people, whose histories have been systematically erased over hundreds of years of enslavement and colonialism, this has offered a small opportunity to document our own histories from below, so that our parents’ and grandparents’ stories do not go to the serious with them .
It is these reflections that I carried with me through the doors of the Tate Britain’s exhibition Life Between Islands, which explores the relationship between Britain and the Caribbean through art from the 1950s onwards. Separated into chronological sections, the exhibition journeys from the Windrush generation and the Caribbean Artists’ Movement all the way through to the present. It also seeks to interrogate the nature of time itself; the gallery text draws on Stuart Hall’s statement that “detours through the past” are necessary “to make ourselves anew”.
As a third-generation Caribbean living in the UK, the section of the exhibition that I am most drawn to is Pressure, which looks at the work of Black British people around my mother’s age. I grew up hearing stories of blues parties, uprisings and National Front marches, but have rarely seen these oral histories affirmed in the mainstream cultural sphere.
Sitting in Michael McMillan’s installation, The West Indian Front Room, which documents the distinct aesthetic of the 1970s British Caribbean home, I text my mum pictures of the kitsch floral carpet, busy yellow wallpaper and crochet doilies, hoping for a reaction. “I don’t find this strange,” she quickly replies. “I find it very familiar. That’s my house – I grew up there.” I feel silly – what seems like an immersive act of time travel for me is an unremarkable, not-so-distant memory for her. And yet, it is a small reminder of how these histories fall through the cracks between generations.
Memory is also crucially important when approaching Black British activism. While it is common for detractors to insist that Black Lives Matter is a new American import, Horace Ové’s images capture African American writer and activist James Baldwin’s speech at the West Indian Student Union in Earl’s Court in 1968. Neil Kenlock, the official photographer of the British Black Panther party, also showcases photos of Young Black girls wearing Black Panther schoolbags, Black Power demonstrations, and portraits of the radical Black British feminist Olive Morris. A number of these photographs seem to fit with Stuart Hall’s idea of “histographs” – a mix of history and photography. Then there is Dominica-born Tam Joseph’s painting, The Sky at Night, which depicts the Broadwater Farm uprising that followed the death of Cynthia Jarrett in police custody. These works bring to life the fact that there is a firm tradition of Black organizing and rebellion in Britain. If we don’t hold on to these histories, we risk trying to reinvent the wheel and framing every conversation as “new”.
While art may be the genesis of our freedom, it is also a powerful vehicle for documenting our lack of freedom. Each of those documented in Black British art of the past – police violence, a racist media machine, the looming threat of the far right – are unsettlingly familiar. Spirit of the Carnival, another work painted by Tam Joseph in 1982, feels closest to home for me. In the painting, a mob of police with riot shields forms a circle around a masked Notting Hill carnival masquerader adorned head-to-toe in orange and yellow feathers. It evokes the image of people crowded around a roaring fire. A police dog lurches and gnashes at the reveller at the center of the painting. Joseph’s piece hauntingly captures an ongoing cycle: where Black people carve out new paths towards joy and resistance, and find those spaces plagued by the same old violence.
There is something exhausting about the relevance or even perceived “freshness” of Joseph’s piece today – that there are such obvious through-lines between the past and the present. But I am also reminded that history is not linear, and that, crucially, it is slow. As time ticks on and movements shape shift, art will always bear witness to our struggles, and we will always bear witness to art.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism