By Dr. Marsha Pearce, Educator & Curator, University of West Indies

10 July 2018 - 19:23

 Louise Bennett, Miss Lou, 2016. ©

Maria Papaefstathiou

#UpsideDownHistory Part One: Windrush

Instagram Residency winner Marsha Pearce blogs about her curatorial premise and the first series of images for the British Council “Americas IN Britain” Art Project

How do you go about depicting a moment? How do you create a portrait of a layered, nuanced period in time that carries its legacies into our present-day experiences? The Americas IN Britain – 2018 Caribbean Edition Instagram Residency, launched by the British Council in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery London, issues that challenge. It is not an explicit provocation. However, the call to respond, by way of a curated series of images, to four significant anniversaries shared by the Caribbean and the UK suggests one looks at the big picture. It suggests a broader consideration of issues of portrayal and representation while hinging the project on the genre of portraiture itself. 

Use of an online platform for this project is a key factor. Many visual artists work with substrates: canvas, paper, wood, metal, glass – some sort of ground or surface for their image making. In taking up my appointment as Instagram resident curator working in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery, I thought about the digital domain as a kind of “ground” for the image I would be constructing and the implications of that ground for the Caribbean. What power does social media hold for Caribbean cultural instigators and practitioners? “One of the vestiges of our colonial history is our anachronistic thinking – analogue thinking in a digital age,” says Annalee Babb, a Barbados-based consultant specialising in the effects of digital convergence, who recently presented her ideas at CATALYST, an event on the Caribbean creative ecology. The white-cube exhibition remains a Holy Grail – an analogue form – but the Internet and related technologies are proving to be meaningful sites for making art public. With Babb’s words in mind, I approached the residency with a heightened awareness of the value of digital spaces as a robust substrate and a need to leverage that capacity.

Once a substrate is identified, an artist begins mark making; applying foundational gestures. I engaged this curatorial work by establishing the contours that would set the shape and foundation for addressing four moments: 

  1. The arrival of the Empire Windrush ship to London on June 22, 1948 

  2. The founding of the National Health Service on July 5, 1948

  3. The start of Notting Hill Carnival, 1966

  4. Black History month, October

Those contours took the form of a theme: Upside Down History, which is a line from the work of Jamaican poet Louise Bennett-Coverley also known as Miss Lou. Referencing Miss Lou for this project is relevant in a number of ways. Her life bears features of Caribbean and UK inter-connections. She won a British Council Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in 1945 and was the first black student there. She also worked as a host for a number of BBC radio shows. Of note, is her poem “Colonisation in Reverse,” which offers incisive commentary on the mass migration of Caribbean people to Britain. Miss Lou writes:

Dem pour out o’ Jamaica 
Everybody future plan
Is fe get a big-time job
An’ settle in de mother lan’

What an islan’! What a people!
Man an’ woman, old an’ young
Jus’ a pack dem bag an’ baggage
An’ turn history upside down!

This idea of turning history upside down identifies migration to Britain as a subversive move, given the formidable influx of Europeans in the Americas during the colonial era. Upside Down History is a critical theme for thinking about reverse flows of people and the stories and legacies that arise from these processes. The Windrush moment, the first anniversary considered in this residency project, exemplifies that reverse flow. The post-world war II moment is characterised by the mass migration of Caribbean people who came to the UK to fill labour shortages. 

With clear contours, I was ready to build some details. What were/are crucial features of the Windrush moment? I quickly began a dialogue with two curators at the National Portrait Gallery: Clare Freestone who works with the Photographic Collection comprising 250,000 items, and Louise Stewart curator of sixteenth-century to contemporary collections. We would make selections from the National Portrait Gallery’s archive and put them in conversation with my pick of contemporary portrait art from the Caribbean. 

 

 

Keisha Scarville - Passports (puzzle face), 2014 ©

Keisha Scarville

Oswald Merrique Jr. - Praise Remit, 2015. ©

Oswald Merrique Jr.

Rodell Warner - Image from “Closer,” 2009. ©

Rodell Warner

Kelley-Ann Lindo - Untitled, 2016. ©

Kelley-Ann Lindo

John Beadle - What if the chain and lock were solid gold? 2013  ©

John Beadle

Our decision to present portraits of Caribbean writers was an organic one – it grew naturally from an understanding of Louise Bennett-Coverley’s position in the landscape of the written and spoken word. Among those who came from the Caribbean to Britain in search of work were writers, poets and intellectuals. From the Gallery’s Collection, we chose Horace Ové’s photograph titled “The Lime.” It features Trinidad-born writers Samuel Selvon and John La Rose, along with Andrew Salkey, an author of Jamaican parentage. They are pictured liming or hanging out in London. We also selected Dawoud Bey’s polaroid print of Jamaica-born Stuart Hall. Hall became Director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1972 and Professor of Sociology at the Open University in 1979. Our other choices from the Collection were Grace Nichols, Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Agard and Benjamin Zephaniah. These writers signal the continued movement of literary creatives from the Caribbean to Britain, since the Windrush moment.

Regarding artwork from the Caribbean, I wanted to produce a multifaceted picture of the Windrush period and its sustained impact. It was important for me to offer a portrait of that moment with as much dimension as a brief Instagram Story would permit – a portrait with the tints and tones, the light and shadows. Therefore I chose contemporary work by Caribbean artists that could address and stir a range of issues. Rodell Warner’s photograph from his Worker Portrait Series brings attention to labour as a feature of the Windrush moment. His image from his Closer series – a project in which he asks passersby in the street to stand with a stranger and make eye contact – highlights the notion of relations with others and the complexities of such interactions. Works from Keisha Scarville’s Passport series are interpretations of her father’s passport photos as she reflects on what she describes as the ‘shape-shifting effects’ of migration, including issues of belonging and silencing. 

Kelley-Ann Lindo uses a photo of herself, taken as a child, to create work that addresses her family’s emigration and the associated phenomenon of barrel children – those left behind by family seeking a better life overseas. These children often receive barrels of supplies from family living abroad. Her portrait is a symbolic container or ‘barrel’ for narratives of loss and longing. The image by Oswald Merrique Jr describes the joy of receiving migrant remittances often sent via money transfer operators. Remittances to the Caribbean play a role in the region’s economy. Finally, the sculptural work from The John Beadle Project was a necessary component for underscoring the latest Windrush generation scandal, which has come with terrible treatment as the “right to remain” status of Caribbean migrants has been called into question. Beadle’s image of a figure described as a locked gate pinpoints xenophobia, constructs of “us” versus “them” and concerns about security, within ever-unfolding insider/outsider politics. 

With Miss Lou’s work serving as the basis of this project, Clare, Louise and I felt that a portrait of her was essential for this first presentation of images. I reached out to Maria Papaefstathiou, a graphic designer, illustrator and co-founder of the International Reggae Poster Contest. She granted permission for use of her poster portrait of Miss Lou – a poster she designed as an award presented at the second annual Palaver International Literary Festival in Wasaga Beach, Ontario Canada.

The curated series of images we exhibited via social media on June 22, 2018 harnesses the strength of individual portraits to give an impression or “likeness” of the Windrush moment and its experiences.

Dr. Marsha Pearce

Dr. Marsha Pearce

Educator & Curator, University of West Indies

Marsha Pearce is a Cultural Studies scholar, writer, lecturer and curator based in the Caribbean. She is a Visual Arts lecturer at the Dept. of Creative and Festival Arts, The University of the West Indies (UWI) and has also served on the board of the National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago. Her research and critical writings have been published in several academic journals, books, catalogues and newspapers. She holds a B.A. in Visual Arts and a PhD in Cultural Studies from UWI.

 

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