#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:
The arrival of the Empire Windrush ship to London on June 22, 1948
The founding of the National Health Service on July 5, 1948
The start of Notting Hill Carnival, 1966
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.