AGO “Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now” Opening Night Party
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On Wednesday, December 6th, 2023, The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) opened Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now, a landmark multimedia exhibition that explores Caribbean-British art spanning over four generations. Life Between Islands features the work of over 40 British artists with either Caribbean heritage or other connections to the Caribbean. Some of these artists include Aubrey Williams, Donald Locke, Sir Horace Ové, Isaac Julien, Sonia Boyce, Claudette Johnson, Peter Doig, Hurvin Anderson, Barbara Walker, and Alberta Whittle. Each piece tackles themes of identity, family, systemic oppression and injustice, racism, the celebration of Caribbean culture in Britain, and so much more. The U.K. Guardian gave the exhibition glowing reviews, calling it “exhilarating, mighty, radical, tender, as disturbing as it is beautiful.” The Independent called it “joyous, thought-provoking, and beautifully put together.” This was co-curated by David A Bailey, Artistic Director of the International Curators Forum, and Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain, and overseen by Julie Crooks, Curator of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora.
To celebrate the opening of this new exhibition, the AGO threw a fabulous party on Friday, December 8th, 2023, as part of their AGO Friday Nights series. The legendary DJ and music producer, Jazzie B OBE was the guest DJ for the party. I had the utmost pleasure of attending this party on behalf of Fashion Ecstasy, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Below are the highlights from the opening night party:
Exploring Life Between Islands
Since Jazzie B‘s set was due to start later in the evening, attendees were encouraged to visit the exhibition on the fifth floor.
The art was grouped in a semi-chronological order, which worked rather well in guiding guests through the evolution and history of the British-Caribbean identity and seeing the artists who paved the way for contemporary British-Caribbean artists. The exhibition began with artwork of artists who were part of the Windrush generation. It was through this generation that we began to see the merging of cultures and traditions that couldn’t be more different. People of this generation were mostly Caribbean-born, hailing from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and various other islands. When they arrived and settled in the U.K., they were united by their West Indian origins and disillusionment with life in the British Isles and, thus, formed their communities. The artwork in this section represented the conscious reclamation of their heritage in defiance of the dominant British culture. It drew attention to inequalities faced by the Windrush generation, which they are still experiencing today. Artists from the Windrush generation included Denis Williams, Donald Locke, and Aubrey Williams.
After leaving the Windrush Generation, I followed the crowd and ended up in the Black Power series. This collection displayed works from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Each picture touched upon the many political and social struggles faced by the second-generation Caribbean-British community. Here, the world saw the rise of significant political movements and uprisings in the U.S. and across the globe, notably the rise of the British Black Panther Movement and Jamaica’s UWI Student Protest and Rodney Riots in 1968. Photographers include Sir Horace Ové, Vanley Burke, and Dennis Morris.
One of the photographs displayed was a black and white photo entitled Black Panther School Bags, which was shot by Neil Kenlock MBE. As the official photographer of the British Black Panther Party, Neil Kenlock documented the anti-racist protests and demonstrations in the U.K. His bodywork explored many aspects of the U.K.’s Black experience. In this photograph, four beautiful schoolgirls struck their best supermodel poses while sporting their Black Panther school bags. They looked adorable in their white knee-highs, white hair bow, and Mary Jane shoes. Some of the imagery on the bags included the iconic Black raised fist. One thing worth noting is the significant role fashion played (and continues to play) in political and cultural resistance. These girls proudly and boldly wore their solidarity to school! When I saw this picture, I immediately thought of the saying, For the Culture.
Other photographs in this section included Vanley Burke’s, Mrs. Walker and her customers at her hairdresser’s shop, Rookery Road (1979). Burke’s body of work often conveys a strong sense of community and a need to rewrite Black British history. Here in this photo, the hairdresser’s shop is full of clutter and life, a very accurate representation of the hair salons that I visited throughout my life. West Indian hair salons and hairdresser’s shops were, and still are, safe spaces for Black women all over the world. In my family, going to your first hair appointment is considered a rite of passage into womanhood. I had my first hair salon appointment at age 14, and I learned a lot about life, love, beauty, and other “grown folks’ business” while sitting in that salon chair. Upon closer inspection, I recognized many products in the photo and even used them in my hair at some point in my life. There were mannequin heads wearing wigs, boxes of (what appears to be) hair relaxers, and an old-fashioned thermal stove for hot combs and flat irons that, even to this day, still spark a twinge of nervousness within me.
In another part of the exhibition, Tam Joseph’s piece entitled Spirit of the Carnival highlights the disturbing fear that looms over many Caribbean Carnival attendees each year – that of police animosity. In this painting, Tam captured the magnitude of this very valid fear. In the middle, there is a yellow figure dressed as Egungun, closed off from thousands of police officers with shields and a rabid attack dog. Many of the attendees could relate to the unsettling feeling of unease in this painting. It’s hard to exist in a world that constantly pushes the racist narrative that your presence is a threat. It’s hard to revel in and celebrate your culture when there’s constant police surveillance ready to shake down and harm innocent Carnival partygoers.
The exhibition also included a new version of Michael McMillan‘s installation piece called The Front Room: Inna Toronto/6ix. In this ongoing, site-specific installation, McMillan recreated a fictional old Caribbean woman’s living room. According to the artist’s statement, this particular rendition “speaks to the diaspora in the ways migrant communities expressed being Caribbean and becoming Canadian through material culture in their homes (i.e. objects, photographs, music).” This fictional front room belonged to Gloria, a Caribbean-Canadian nurse and mother of two whose parents migrated to the U.K. in the early 1950s as part of the Windrush generation. Attendees were encouraged to enter Gloria’s Front Room and explore the space, but on the condition that we, Lef it di Way yuh find It an nuh tek nuhting! For those not fluent in Patois, McMillan included the translation into the artist statement, which is: leave them as you found them and do not take anything.
This installation was my favourite out of the entire exhibition! As I was exploring the room, I internally squealed with delight when I noticed that a lot of the items in the room were things that my grandmother still has in her own home. Upon seeing the vintage alarm clock placed on top of the wooden T.V. console, I immediately felt like I was back at my grandma’s! She even has the same ornate wooden cabinet, complete fine china, glass stemware, porcelain knickknacks, and polyester doilies lining the shelves. In between hearing Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “One Love/People Get Ready” play from the record player and seeing the wooden Grenada-shaped clock on the wall, all I could think was, “Oh yes, this feels like home!” McMillan fully captured the coziness and warmth of a Caribbean grandmother’s front room. I used to love visiting my grandmother’s home when I was younger, so this installation brought joy to me and my inner child.
The rest of the exhibition included contemporary artists. There was a massive oil painting by the highly acclaimed Scottish-born artist Peter Doig.
There was Alberta Whittle’s piece entitled, “We Remain With You,” a Carnival figure on linen made out of multiple materials, including raffia, acrylic, synthetic hair bundles, doilies, and cowrie shells. The figure’s open arms were meant to symbolize protection, guidance, and compassion. Lastly, there was a photographic installation by Liz Johnson Artur, who documented the grime music scene around her home in South London.
Jazzie B was amazing! Everyone was so excited when he entered the room and took his spot behind the D.J. booth. He spun mash-ups of dancehall beats and mainstream songs from artists such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye that kept everyone on the dancefloor until the end of the party. The best part was the moment he got on the mic and encouraged everyone to move closer to the booth. He turned Walker Court into a good old-fashioned Jamaican dance hall of yesteryear!
Appleton Estate, the contributing sponsor for the exhibition, delighted attendees with their sample rum-based cocktails. Both drinks were made with Appleton Estate Signature Rum and Appleton Estate Appleton Estate’s 8-Year-Old Reserve Rum. While both drinks were a touch too strong for this writer, they were real crowd-pleasers for everyone else.
At the end of the party, Jazzie B was seen signing autographs and records for Soul II Soul fans. Scroll to the end to see the stunning photo that I captured of us.
Author’s Note and Final Thoughts
Life Between Islands deeply resonated with me as I, too, am of British and Caribbean descent. One of my cherished childhood moments was waking up on Sunday mornings to the smell of ackee and saltfish wafting through the house while Benny Hill played on the telly in the living room. Even though I loved these small elements of British and Jamaican cultures, my inquisitive child self really wanted to learn more about my beautifully diverse cultural background.
Upon learning that this exhibition explores themes of identity, culture, family, and home, I felt a very strong call to visit the exhibition. This show was also an opportunity to connect with others who are of British and Caribbean descent like me. In preparation for my visit, I had these questions in the back of my mind, ‘Will I see some of my lived experiences reflected in the artwork? What does it mean to be ‘British-Caribbean’? What does home mean to them?’
To my relief, surprise, and joy, all of my questions were answered, and then some!
A huge thank you goes to the AGO for bringing Life Between Islands to Toronto. Even if one is not of British-Caribbean descent, one can appreciate all of these different stories, voices, and histories that are often unappreciated and undervalued by the British public. This inspirational exhibition will be on display until April 1st, 2024.
For further information, please visit https://ago.ca/exhibitions/life-between-islands.
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