Caribbean Artist Movement: pushed the boundaries of what was considered to be art

Updated: Oct 12



George Lamming famously observed that it was in the UK that he and other intellectuals of the Windrush generation first “became Caribbean.” It was the place where island peoples found one another and reflected on their shared experiences in the face of an often-harsh reception in their ‘mother country.’


In the 1950s and 1960s, England was the place where artists came together from the newly formed “Commonwealth”. One crucial gathering was the formation of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) in London in 1966. An important moment that influenced events in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Like the Harlem Renaissance that emerged in New York during the 1920s and 1930s, CAM was a diverse collection of writers, critics and artists who were interested in developing a modern Caribbean aesthetic -an aesthetic that explored colonial histories as well as defining a newly formed Black British identity.


The movement was co-founded by Edward Kamau Brathwaite, the Barbadian-born historian and poet who came to Britain to complete a doctorate; Andrew Salkey, the Jamaican-born academic and broadcaster; and the political and cultural activist Trinidadian-born John La Rose.


In 1968, Brathwaite wrote about CAM’s origins, dating them back to a small informal meeting held on 19 December 1966 in his London flat in Mecklenburgh Square: “What was to become the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) started in December 1966 in my Bloomsbury basement flat. I had recently arrived from the Caribbean on study leave to Britain, and as a writer myself, wanted, quite naturally, to get in touch with as many Caribbean artists as possible. But where were they? The novelists’ books were being regularly published; at the Commonwealth Arts Festival I had seen work by a few painters, designers and sculptors from the Caribbean; but no one seemed to know how to get in touch with them.”


They were concerned that many Caribbean writers and artists were being marginalised and did not have the opportunity to meet up and discuss their work and interests. And so set out to create a forum to allow creative folks of any ilk to meet informally. As stated by the George Padmore Institute: CAM was inclusive rather than exclusive and essentially open to anyone who wanted to share and understand the needs and aspirations of Caribbean artists.


The membership of CAM ranged from the illustrious titans of Caribbean creativity to new and upcoming artists. These included such eminent figures of the Caribbean arts as novelist, critic and historian C L R James, author of one of the very early West Indian novels, Minty Alley, novelist and poet Wilson Harris, and Pearl Connor, theatrical agent and activist. Among the CAM members representing the visual arts was distinguished sculptor Ronald Moody (younger brother of Dr Harold Moody), painter Aubrey Williams and textile designer, Althea McNish. Less established names at the time comprised the likes of Karl ‘Jerry’ Craig, Art Derry and Clifton Campbell, and younger emerging artists included Paul Dash, Winston Branch, Errol Lloyd, Winston Benn, and performance poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.


In its intense six-year existence, it set the dominant trends in Caribbean arts, at the same time forging a bridge between Caribbean migrants and those who came to be known as Black Britons.


The first CAM conference was held in 1967 in London, and a subsequent conference at the University of Kent in 1969. The work of CAM members was first brought to the British public eye by the BBC in the Caribbean edition of the magazine programme Full House, produced by John La Rose and transmitted on 3 February 1973, in which the work of writers, musicians and film-makers was presented in a studio setting of visual artists' work brought together by CAM member Althea McNish.


CAM public sessions included such varied topics as ‘Africa’s Unique Dance Culture’ presented by John Akar, founder of the Sierra Leone Dance Company, and ‘Film as an Artistic Medium’, featuring Evan Jones and Horace Ové. Léon Damas of French Guiana was the subject of the first of three public sessions concerned with major poets from the French-speaking West Indies, followed by a focus on the more celebrated poets Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor of the Négritude movement in Paris of the 1930s. In ‘The Role and Nature of African Drumming’, Femi Fatoba, Nigerian musician, poet and actor and Tony Evora, Cuban musician and graphic designer, spoke about and played the tonal drums of the Yoruba as played in Fatoba’s homeland and as transferred to the Caribbean.


Caribbean art and the social role of its proponents would go on to be explored through CAM seminars, workshops, readings, exhibitions and a newsletter. Among the popular venues was the Keskidee Centre, off the Caledonian Road, in Islington.


Brathwaite’s momentous reading of his epic poem Rights of Passage at the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre in Holborn, articulating the experiences of West Indian migrants in Britain using the rhythms of everyday speech, set the tone of what was to come.

“It was a tremendously exciting reading,” recalled Sarah White (partner of John La Rose). “People had never heard of anybody like Eddie as British poets didn’t have that performance tradition in those days.”


The high points of the CAM programme were undoubtedly its conferences. These involved distinguished speakers such as the writers CLR James and Michael Anthony, university lecturers and critics Kenneth Ramchand and Louis James, and painters Aubrey Williams and Clifton Campbell. At the first conference, a keynote was presented by Elsa Goveia, professor of West Indian history at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, on ‘The Socio-Cultural framework of the Caribbean’. Also present were representatives from British mainstream publishing houses such as Heinemann, Faber, Macmillan and Longman. Members of the audience – apart from writers, artists, actors, critics and university teachers, many affiliated to CAM – were students of drama and medicine, literature and history, alongside teachers, librarians and academics from several Commonwealth countries as far afield as Ghana, Nigeria, Canada and Australia.


Like all CAM events, these conferences were tape-recorded for posterity. Together with the CAM newsletter, these tape recordings proved an invaluable source of information for Anne Walmsley, then Longman’s Caribbean publisher. She was introduced to CAM by Kamau Brathwaite, one of whose poems she had included in her West Indian schools’ anthology, The Sun’s Eye. Although she attended several public meetings, the first conference at the University of Kent at Canterbury provided her first full CAM experience. She was so impressed by what she saw and heard that she wrote accounts of this and the second conference for BIM, the Barbados magazine, and much later wrote a comprehensive documentary history of CAM.


The Caribbean Artists Movement, 1966–1972: A Literary and Cultural History, published in 1992 and is still available from New Beacon Books, includes biographical information about the participants as well as colour plates of the sculpture and paintings of the CAM artists, together with numerous black and white photographs of individuals and events; this seminal publication affords an invaluabe insight into the Movement and the life and times of the period.


In 1972 CAM ceased as a formal organisation as some of its leading lights left Britain for good. The 1971 Immigration Act also put a stop to the wave of Caribbean migrants and signalled the arrival in the public consciousness of the “born here, here to stay” generation of Black Britons.


In October 2007, a retrospective of the movement’s work was held at gallery:space in Finsbury Park. The exhibition titled ‘Visions of Consciousness’, co-curated by Shiri Shalmy, aimed to show CAM’s “secret history” by displaying the work of visual artists from the movement, photographic records, film and original books.


The event was attended by former members of CAM, including renowned children’s author and illustrator, Errol Lloyd. “I was self-taught and worked in isolation until I was introduced to Caribbean Artists Movement,” he says. “I met older artists like the sculptor Ron Moody and they acted like role models for me. From there my work developed.”


CAM is acknowledged as being particularly significant in helping to “spark interest in the work of Britain’s artists of colour”. A number of later events and organisations, such as the International Book Fairs of Black, Radical and Third World Books, and the formation of Bogle L’Ouverture Publications and Creation for Liberation, all recognise the great impact of the movement on their work. More recently, artworks by Ronald Moody, Aubrey Williams and Winston Branch have been acquired by the Tate, with the intention of shining a brighter light on Caribbean-born British Black modernist artists, and the instrumental work of CAM.


“The Caribbean Artists Movement pushed the boundaries of what was considered to be art. [But] above all, it established what Caribbean art was.”




Sources:

https://www.bl.uk/windrush/articles/caribbean-artists-movement-1966-1972

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Caribbean_Artists_Movement

https://angelacobbinah.wordpress.com/2007/10/25/caribbean-artists-movement-retrospective/

https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/collections/caribbean-artists-movement-1965-1995

https://somethingcurated.com/2020/09/28/what-londons-caribbean-artist-movement-of-the-60s-70s-taught-us/

https://www.internationalcuratorsforum.org/the-caribbean-artist-movement-its-legacy/

https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/collections/caribbean-artists-movement-1965-1995


Photo Credit:

This photograph, entitled The Lime, captures Samuel Selvon, John La Rose and Andrew Salkey. Horace Ové / National Portrait Gallery, London. Image made available under Public Domain Mark from British Library.

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