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Life Between Islands Review: Caribbean-British Art at Its Most Passionate

This topical exhibition, which includes images of demonstrations as well as a Union Black flag, is an unmistakable testimony to ingenuity.

Protests and pleasures, festivities and insurrections are all on display in Life Between Islands. It's been years in the planning, and it's an exhibition of arrivals, departures, and returns as essential as it is relevant - and long overdue. It takes us from pre-war London and Ronald Moody's carved figures to digital animation and an examination of successive regimes of punitive and restrictive immigration law from the 1800s to the current government's hostile environment policies, in a work by the Otolith Group, filled with variety and complexity, the well-known and lesser-known, the overlooked or rarely shown in this country.

This landmark show of roughly 50 artists is accompanied by a comprehensive booklet. In Michael McMillan's recreation of a 1970s West Indian front room, we visit the house of fictitious political activist Joyce. Pressure, a 1976 film by Horace Ové, is playing on the television. It's the first black director's feature film in the UK, and it's a brutal look at the lives of the Windrush generation and the hardships their British-born children confront.

Vron Ware's photographs for the anti-fascist Searchlight magazine, documenting the Black People's Day of Action in 1981, following the New Cross arson attack, which killed 13 young people, are sobering reminders of a period of casual racism, bleak prospects of resistance and defiance, and pleasures taken against the odds.

Winston Rose is dragged and half-carried along the street by uniformed police in a picture by Denzil Forrester, rushed to his death in detention in 1981. Rose was a close friend of the family.

We see folks at the illuminated windows and demonstrators silhouetted against a fire underneath the buildings in Tam Joseph's picture of the night after Cynthia Jarrett's murder during a police raid on her apartment in 1985. Joseph's The Sky at Night is as much historical painting as it is journalism, an event seen and absorbed, as evocative as any documentary video or picture.

During a superbly reproduced 1960s London home party, another young guy is beaten on a bed by his father for speaking Creole rather than English, in a vertiginous moment from Isaac Julien's three-screen 2002 Paradise Omeros.

Julien's earlier Territories, made in 1984 while he was still a student, is still haunting and full of memorable images, more than 35 years after I first saw it, with its scenes of heavily policed Notting Hill carnivals of 1976 and 1984, of riot and surveillance, with its voiceover and heavily mixed sound-system dub.

Throughout the exhibition, protest and resilience, rage and pleasure collide. Broken items, severed vertebrae, and burned-out nature abound in Aubrey Williams' paintings. Even the abstractions are deceiving: maps of Guyana and South America are barely visible in Frank Bowling's paintings, and Donald Locke's completely black, impassive painting turns out to be an abstracted view of regular gridded fields in Guyana, part of the plantation structure imposed by Dutch and then British colonial rule. This is oppression's geometry.

Throughout the show, there are tremors and violences, yet there is also laughter. In Lookalook, gay Barbadian artist Ada M Patterson stalks the streets of Bridgetown costumed as a legendary monster shrouded in black with a shell-adorned headdress, eliciting glances, insults, and laughs.

In a profoundly conservative country where anti-LGBTQ+ laws from the colonial past still exist, this public charade is an insult. They dress up like a sea urchin or an echidna in another piece. It seems to be painful in any case.

Blue Curry riffs on perceptions of the Caribbean as a drab "leisure and consumption" destination. Curry's row of aircraft seats is a joyful trip to a dream paradise, filthy with spews of beach sand and shells, the fancy headrests covered with braided fake hair.

Hew Locke's decorated busts – one has the head of King Edward VII festooned in masonic regalia, almost to the point of smothering the monarch entirely in his decorations – play on the transgressive figures of Junkanoo carnival, as do Zak Ové's carnivalesque faces and figures, constructed from beached rope, mops, and antique masks. Chris Ofili's taunting blue men occupy a scary, vivid blue landscape, as do his Napoleonic-era horses who transition into uniformed officers.

Both Ofili and Peter Doig have lived in Trinidad for more than a decade, and there's a lovely segment in the presentation that highlights Doig's creative conversation with Derek Walcott, whose writings inspired Julien's Paradise Omeros and who also appears in the film.

Dialogues with the Caribbean are becoming more bidirectional. Throughout the exhibition's duration, Ofili's 2003 Union Black banner will fly above Tate Britain, with the union colors replaced with Pan-African red, black, and green.

It is, in part, a reminder of what has been dubbed the "Caribbeanization" of British culture and society, a society that arose from an empire whose riches were derived from slavery in the Caribbean, which curator Alex Farquharson describes as the economic and military heart of Britain's first age of empire. What a wonderful and important show this is: salutary, sobering, deep, and fulfilling.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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