Tate exhibit to explore the gallery’s links to the Caribbean slave trade | Tate Britain

British institutions must take responsibility for their history of profiting from slavery, said the curator of a new landmark exhibition of Caribbean-British art at Tate Britain.

Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now features artists from the fields of film, photography, painting, sculpture and fashion. These include both Caribbean and Caribbean-inspired specimens such as Ronald Moody, Sonia Boyce, Claudette Johnson and Steve McQueen.

David A Bailey, curator of the exhibition and a member of the British Black Arts Movement – the radical political art movement founded in 1982 – said she had in many ways explored Tate Britain’s own checkered past.

Vanley Burke, Young Men on a Seesaw in Handsworth Park 1984. Photo: Courtesy of the Vanley Burke Archives

The original Tate collection was funded in the late 19th century by industrialist Sir Henry Tate, who made his fortune as a sugar refinery – a business that is inextricably linked to slave labor in the Caribbean.

“It tries to answer the question of the museum and its responsibility in a climate of the 21st.“ That has now turned up again around the question of mail slavery and the sugar industry, to which reference is made in some of the works in the show.

“For me, our institutions must, among other things, take responsibility for these questions and think about what these elements will leave behind in the future.”

The exhibition begins with artists of the Windrush generation who came to the UK in the 1950s and explores the Caribbean Artists Movement, an informal group of creatives like Paul Dash and Althea McNish whose tropical modernist textile designs were inspired by the Caribbean landscape.

Black Panther satchel, 1970 by Neil Kenlock.
Black Panther satchel, 1970 by Neil Kenlock. Photo: © Courtesy of the Neil Kenlock Archives

The rise of the black power movement in Britain is shown in works such as Horace Ové’s photographs of Stokely Carmichael and Neil Kenlock’s Black Panther satchel. The exhibition also includes a new iteration of Michael McMillan’s The Front Room, a reconstruction of a fictional interior from the 1970s that invokes the home’s role as a safe place for social gatherings at a time of widespread prejudice.

Other works by the Black Arts movement of the 1970s and 80s depict the social and political struggles of the Caribbean-British community. Isaac Julien’s Territories depicts the conflict between carnivalists and the police, while Denzil Forrester’s Death Walk pays tribute to Winston Rose, who died in police custody, and Keith Piper’s Go West Young Man photo collage combines transatlantic slavery with the media’s demonization of young black men.

Horace Ové Stokely Carmichael gave a black power speech at The Dialectics of Liberation Congress, Round House, London in 1967.
Horace Ové Stokely Carmichael gave a black power speech at The Dialectics of Liberation Congress, Round House, London in 1967. Photo: © Horace Ové / Courtesy Horace Ové Archives

These are issues that society is still grappling with today, Bailey said. “Great European powers have a post-colonial history. Different generations emerge and these burdens are taken over and reappear. That will never go away. “

The exhibition also celebrates Caribbean-British culture, from reggae and dub to the annual carnival. It features artists who have appeared on the scene more recently, such as fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner and photographer Liz Johnson Artur, who follows the evolution of the grime music scene.

Jah Shaka, 1983 by Denzil Forrester.
Jah Shaka, 1983 by Denzil Forrester. Photo: © Denzil Forrester

Bailey said the exhibition has been in the works since 2015 when Alex Farquharson, the director of Tate Britain, approached him. With talks about anti-racism gaining momentum after the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 and ongoing efforts to return looted artifacts to their places of origin, now is the ideal time for this exhibit, he said.

“It is a moment for our national spaces to think about what they are trying to do.”

He hoped the exhibition would attract new and diverse communities to Tate Britain, while normal visitors “will now see a different sensitivity to British art”.

“The Tate bookstore is flooded with books from that period,” he added. “On the one hand, when we went to university, we were able to name the number of books [by Black writers and artists] that we could relate to. Now there are so many. “

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