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Life Between Islands


(Tate Britain, until 3 April 2022)

Reviewed by Linda Brogan


Calling all black people who live in the London area, you have to see Life Between Islands, especially if you are an artist. It will help you make sense of yourself. It will clarify the journey from 1950 to now. Clarify what happened in black consciousness. We were really vilified. The National Front really did try to walk down the street to intimidate us. They really were telling us to go home. We were stopped and searched. It is not in our imaginations. The pain. The riots. It happened.

Barbara Walker (b.1964) My Song 2006, Series 2 and 3, I can paint a picture with a pin, 2006. These are simple sketches of her son over stop and search dockets she found secreted in his bedroom. I didn’t realise it still went on.

Between 2002 and 2006 and aged between 17 and 21 years old, Walker’s son Solomon was subjected to being stopped by the police on several separate occasions. On each occasion, he was asked a series of questions and searched. As now apparently required by law, at the end of the encounter he was presented by the police with a yellow A5 duplicate copy of an official form relating to the stop and search. 


Some brothers and sisters have documented it all, responded to it all, in real time. One clever fucker has actually recreated our front room. Michael McMillan (b.1962).  It gives you the collywobbles as you walk in. 

‘Does this make you feel funny?’ I ask a complete stranger. She smiles weakly, like ‘don’t talk to me’ in a Londoner way. But I am a Northerner, and I am on my own and I need to talk to someone about how I am feeling about the gram, and the blue glass fish, and, God, no, the sexy Amazonian woman lounging on the branch of a tree, the records in the rack. The lamp. The god-awful swirly yellow, no, gold and red carpet and the wallpaper that doesn’t match, that violently clashes, like the cops in the next room with their shields and their batons. 

And for once, I like Lubaina Himid (b.1954) and the slyness of her text in Scenes from the Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture: 1–15, 1987. I sense she is revealing a real secret us mixed-race have felt, a kind of separateness, a taking to the white man’s side, like when we sold Toussaint out, grabbing the post-revolution reins of Haiti in 1802. Before we were able to stand up in our blackness. Well, we hadn’t got any choice, you see the blanket plaster, political correctness (PC) has made us all homogenously black. That’s what most artworks of this exhibition reveal to me – individuality.  

Tempered by when the artist was born.

Look at the title of Aubrey Williams (1926–90) doing a bit of abstract in Shostakovich Symphony no.12 – it’s the West Indian kid reciting by rote the poems of his oppressor, the Motherland.

And then all hell breaks loose about 1972. Dennis Morris (b.1960) Bob Marley, Shopping for Trench Town Kids, Leeds, 1974. He really is. Footballs piled high. And Stuart Hall. I love Stuart Hall. Darcus Howe. I love Darcus Howe. They’re our own James Baldwin and Stokely Carmichael. There they are on the wall. Photographic proof that there was a fight in us once upon a time till PC came and watered it down. 

Tempered by gender.

 ‘I have become their worst fear and their best fantasy.’ I’m stopped in my tracks by the scathing poignant sardonic fabulous text of Keith Piper (b.1960) Go West Young Man, 1987. ‘ 

Okay. This one made me cry. ‘My dear daughter now we are oceans apart … oceans apart … oceans apart.’ Oceans Apart, 1989. Ingrid Pollard (b.1953). Ordinary family photos set between ordinary lines, everyday lines. Even as I write, the way it overwhelms me is extraordinary. The first time I realise with empathy what oceans must mean to mother and child, and all the mothers left behind when their children came to the Motherland. 

The plump, tight bum of the blue lady in the Lisa Brice (b.1968) Midday Drinking Den, after Embah I and II, 2017. Boy is she sexy. Still smiling about that. And her wicked cat After Ophelia, 2018. 

The fleshy voluptuous flesh of the big woman lying in the bed her back to us, unlike the classical white nudes made to stare at us. Marcia Michael (b.1973) Partus Sequitur Ventrum, 2015–17. From the series The Object of My Gaze, 2015–ongoing.

Tempered by loss.

The artists born post the 1990s don’t seem to be rooted in anything. Forgetting we are still oppressed. They seem to lose themselves to the accepted language, the colonial language of art, the modern day version of reciting poems by rote. It is so much harder to capture the psychology of PC-cleansed oppression.  

I leave knowing all this has happened, is happening. Buy the catalogue. And here’s where the real magic happens. The handsome black lad behind the till, Willkay, shows me his illustrations in one of the kids’ books on sale. 

‘Wow, you can actually draw. Some artists can’t fucking draw.’

We’re laughing. I mean really laughing. We are proper loud. 

The cool geezer in the pork pie hat adds, ‘What she’s trying to say is.’

Others join in. Our honesty is cosy, loud, raucous. The black staff gets on it. They join in. 

‘I need to see the last room. I’ve got five minutes to see the last room.’

A tall Somalian guard whisks me through. There, a really attractive white woman and her really pretty mixed-race son are sat watching a film. I’ve no idea what it is. But now the exhibition is much more. It’s about her educating him and being educated by this film. It connects me to the mumsy black women in the posh café downstairs who kept smiling at me all through lunch. Comfortable. Chatty. Because there are loads of us, for once, loads of us. And the saggy faced white man behind me with the paunchy red skin made ugly by his gratuitous life of sugar-filled wine and brandy. All their whipping people didn’t do them one bit of good. 

A nice white lady leans over me. She says to her nice white husband, ‘I remember this.’ Probably married for 57 years, but it’s like they don’t know each other. Never emotionally met each other. I don’t quite feel sorry for them. There is still my intrinsic hatred of their received-pronunciation entitlement. But they will never know, especially not now with their brittle bones, what it feels like to slap up against another body you have never met before this minute, like I just did, and be happy as they hug and squeeze tight, as they hug until you feel the skin of the other person give way beneath their overcoat.

Today is a good day. And for once we are not excluded.  Go and belong.  

Hats off to David A. Bailey, the exhibition’s curator and a member of the British Black Arts Movement.

Photo courtesy of Vanley Burke