A Tale of Two Exhibitions

As I write this, two highly contrasting exhibitions are being presented by each of the two London locations of the Tate—Tate Britain and Tate Modern. It’s instructive to compare the two exhibitions and how we might read them for their respective treatment of artists. Tate Britain is presenting Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art, 1950s–Now. Declaring itself as exploring and celebrating, according to the exhibition guide, 

the relationship between the Caribbean and Britain in art from the 1950s to today. Criss-crossing the Atlantic Ocean, [Life Between Islands] reconsiders British art history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries from a Caribbean perspective. Most of the artists represented are of Caribbean heritage: they were born in the Caribbean and came to Britain, either as adults or children, or were born of parents who settled in Britain. All the artworks on display address the Caribbean in significant ways. The exhibition is not a comprehensive survey of Caribbean-British art. While it is broadly chronological, each section examines different themes. These include the role of culture in decolonisation; the sociopolitical struggles that Caribbean British people face; the social and cultural significance of the home; the reclaiming of ancestral cultures; and the cross cultural nature of Caribbean and diasporic identity. The themes are explored across different art forms in a manner that is characteristic of Caribbean culture and thought. Life Between Islands seeks to highlight the new identities, communities and cultural forms forged by Caribbean-British people. These developments have taken place in the face of hostility and discrimination, with defiance, solidarity, and creativity. The exhibition reveals the ways in which people of the Caribbean diaspora have created a distinctly Caribbean-British culture while influencing British society as a whole.

…Whatever the merits—or indeed, drawbacks—of the Black group exhibition, it is undoubtedly the case that the ultimate recognition of an artist is via the significant solo exhibition, the seminal monograph, or, in the case of Art Journal, when an artist is the subject or focus of a substantial text’s inquiry. The solo exhibition towers above the group exhibition because a focus on a single artist allows audiences to assess the unique merits, trajectory, and output of an individual practitioner more substantially, without the oftentimes stifling and constraining grand, socially oriented narratives that so often accompany Black group exhibitions. Simply put, an artist of color is more likely to be appreciated as an artist when they are uncoupled from the dreaded raced prefix. In contrast to Life Between Islands, the Himid exhibition presents a more thorough, balanced, and sympathetic examination of an artist. Any large-scale Black group show is, by definition, bound to bypass this all-important sense of individuality, because their attempts at forging strong, determined (though ultimately prescribed) curatorial narratives take priority. But when people are engaged as individuals, each with their own particular sense of personhood (rather than as part of an indistinguishable collective) the engagement is infinitely more respectful and positive. This sentiment has a particular and poignant application to artists of color, as much as it applies to the communities from which they emerge.

Returning to the list of nearly fifty contributors to the Life Between Islands exhibition: even the most enthusiastic, repeat visitor to the exhibition would be hard pressed to accurately recall the names or the work of most, let alone all, of the included artists. The greater the number of artists corralled into an ungainly group exhibition, the thinner and more marginal their individual contribution. Yet absolutely no one visiting Lubaina Himid’s retrospective could fail to come away from Tate Modern without having formed their own reliable judgment on the assembled work.

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers' “A Tale of Two Exhibitions”, Art Journal, Fall 2022, 81:3, 5-7