Pearl Alcock was born Pearlina Smith in 1935, in the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Little is known about her life before she came to England, but it’s thought that she grew up in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, and that she was married to a French-Canadian man.
At the age of 25, she migrated to Leeds as part of the Windrush generation with just five pounds in her pocket. She initially worked as a maid and then found factory work until she saved up £1000 to be able to open her own shop in London.
Sometime in the early 1970s, she launched a bridal shop on Railton Road in Brixton, London. Within a few years, she had opened a sheeben – an unlicensed bar – in the shop’s basement.
Pearl’s sheeben became the only queer safe space for London’s Black gay community in the 1970s. At the time when the community experienced racism within the predominately white gay scene.
In a Gal-Dem article on Pearl Alcock: “Longtime friend of Pearl, Dirg Arab Richard, described her as ‘kind and generous’ person, always ‘full of laughs.’ When Dirg knew her, she was very much out and proud – he remembers her proudly proclaiming “I’m bisexual ya know!” to a straight friend of his.
She was forced to close her sheeban after the police started targeting them following the election of the Thatcher government in 1979.
By 1981, Pearl’s shop had ceased trading because of the reduced number of customers due to the first Brixton Uprising. Undeterred, Alcock opened a café next door at 105 Railton Road in a building owned by relatives of hers.
“The cafe wasn’t particularly grand or fancy, but that was part of its charm; it was a “safe haven”, according to Dirg Aab Richards. You’d be there, packed in like sardines with a bunch of other people from the local community who were mostly West Indian.”
The 1985 Brixton uprising brought more financial hardship culminating to a period of the cafe running by candlelight as the electricity was shut off. The café eventually shut down at the end of that year.
Pearl’s journey with art began that same year when she was unable to afford a birthday card for a friend, so she drew one, using crayons and packaging from women’s tights.
Spurred on the positive reaction from her friend, she started making bookmarks and selling them for a pound each using any free materials she could find. In an interview with Mark Kurlansky in 1991, she told him that: “Everything I [got], I was scribbling on. The receipts at the cafe. Everything… I couldn’t stop working.”
Alcock started to gain recognition from the art world in the late 1980s with the support of her friends, who brought her art materials and purchased some of her early work.
“As Pearl’s work got more attention, she moved onto bigger pieces. She flitted between the abstract style of her paintings that were beginning to be shown in galleries, and a more commercial aesthetic, like making postcards to sell under railway arches.”
By the late 1980s, her art was being exhibited in the 198 Gallery, the Almeida Theatre and the Bloomsbury Theatre. Then in 1990 her work was included in the London Fire Brigade calendar.
But it wasn’t until a year before her death in 2006 that Pearl’s work started to gain mainstream recognition, being shown in the Tate Britain as part of their ‘Outsider Art’ exhibition in 2005.
Monika Kinley, one of the country's leading advocates of Outsider Art, describes her as "a visual poet".
In 2019, she was the subject of a year-long retrospective at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester.
Pearl Alcock is an important figure in both Black British art and Britain’s Black LGBTQ+ community. A fearless, pioneer who provided a safe haven to queer Black Britons in the 1970s.
Pearl kept making work until she died aged 72, on 7 May 2006 in St George’s Residence Housing Co-op – coincidently not too far away from where her infamous sheeben was.