Island to Island

A view of the Anglican Church in Black River, St Elizabeth, Jamaica © Tim Smith

This is a guest blog by photographer Tim Smith, a long-standing friend of the Migration Museum Project and contributor to our 100 Images of Migration exhibition. He describes the background to Island to Island – Journeys Through the Caribbean, a new exhibition at Leeds Central Library which runs from 27 June until 27 July 2018. 

A new exhibition, Island to Island – Journeys Through the Caribbean, runs at the Central Library in Leeds throughout July 2018, but visitors will find it hard to spot many photos of turquoise seas and white sandy beaches lined with palm trees. For that just sit tight, Google “Caribbean Images” and view thousands of photos designed to encourage tourists to visit what is undoubtedly a beautiful part of the world, but which totally ignore the lives of people who live and work there.

First page of search result for Caribbean images © Google

Cutting sugar cane on the Blairmont Estate in the Berbice area of Guyana © Tim Smith

I live in Bradford, work as a professional photographer and have contributed my photographs to several different Migration Museum projects, including their first exhibition 100 Images of Migration. Having grown up in different parts of the world, including the Caribbean, I suspect a nomadic upbringing is one reason why I’m so interested in using photography, film and audio to explore the lives of Britain’s cosmopolitan communities and their links with people and places overseas.

This particular project began in 2010 when I travelled back, for the first time in 40 years, to my childhood home of Barbados. I also visited Dominica, the island from which many of my neighbours in Bradford originate. Returning made me realise that although I can never claim the Caribbean as home, while I was there I did feel at home. This made me determined to investigate other people’s ideas of ‘home’ by visiting other places in the region closely linked to communities in Britain, with the long-term ambition of producing an exhibition that moved beyond the popular stereotypes of ‘The Paradise Islands.

Since 2010 I’ve been back to Barbados and Dominica, and also visited Antigua, Carriacou, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent, and Trinidad & Tobago. Photos of all feature in Island to Island, together with a fascinating series of pictures taken by my father Derek during the 1950s and ‘60s. Shot on slide film they show everyday life in Barbados and other islands that my father visited whilst working for the British Government’s Overseas Development Administration.

A view of Bathsheba, a village on the Atlantic coast of Barbados, during the 1960s © Tim Smith

These slides lay unseen in a wardrobe for decades, but I dug them out and recently scanned a selection for display. Alongside my pictures they show how life has changed over the past sixty years. I’ve been sharing both sets of images with groups of people across Leeds, using them as a spark for exploring their experiences of life both ‘over here’ and ‘over there’. Recording their memories and reflections often brings new life and meanings to the pictures. Some of their words will be used as part of the exhibition along with other people’s stories gathered by Leeds writer Khadijah Ibrahiim, whose poetry also features in the show.

A mural outside Charlestown, the capital of Nevis. The twin island nation of St Kitts & Nevis is the original home of most of the people who migrated from the Caribbean to Leeds during the 1950s and ’60s © Tim Smith

As well as celebrating the light, life and landscapes of the Caribbean, the exhibition is also inspired by a quote from the Jamaican author, Rex Nettleford, who wrote: ‘The apt description of the typical Caribbean person is that he/she is part-African, part-European, part-Asian, part-Native American but totally Caribbean. To perceive this is to understand the creative diversity which is at once cause and occasion, result and defining point of Caribbean cultural life.’ I set out to create photographs which explore the region’s past and present, a story that embraces a fusion of cultures and has shaped a set of regional identities which vary from island to island, giving each nation its own distinctive character.

The War Memorial in Basseterre remembering those men of St Kitts & Nevis who lost their lives in the First World War, 1914-1918 © Tim Smith

I’ve also asked people in Leeds how this multicultural heritage – African, European, Asian and Amerindian – is reflected by Caribbean festivals, music and masquerade, and how Caribbean carnival has become an important part of the cultural calendar across Britain. These interviews are featured in a film illustrated with my father’s photos of the Trinidad Carnival in 1967 (the same year that Leeds West Indian Carnival began) and my own pictures of carnivals across the Caribbean and Yorkshire.

The Renegades Steel Orchestra, a steel pan band, on the road in Port of Spain at the 1967 Trinidad Carnival © Tim Smith

It should also be remembered that the presence of black people in Britain stretches back many centuries. This history, and Leeds’ historical connections with the Caribbean, will be explored using material drawn from the collections of Leeds Central Library, curated by the Chapeltown-based arts project Heritage Corner.

A group of girls eating candyfloss making their way to the Junior Calypso Competition in Newtown, Dominica © Tim Smith

In many ways it’s a nonsense to attempt to cover such a large and varied area in a single exhibition, but whilst providing glimpses of different stories it also aims to be the catalyst for much more. Producing it has brought back many memories for me. I hope it does the same for others who once lived in the Caribbean, and inspires people to further explore the region’s history and its links with Britain, perhaps by investigating their own family stories. I also hope that many visitors to Island to Island will discover something new about the Caribbean, and some may be tempted to (re)visit an endlessly fascinating and diverse part of the world which offers so much more than the images and ideas offered up by the tourist industry.

A make-up workshop in the Hope Botanic Gardens, Kingston, Jamaica © Tim Smith 

Island to Island
27 June 2018–27 July 2018
Room 700
Leeds Central Library
Municipal Buildings, Calverly St
Leeds, West Yorkshire LS1 3AB

Click here for more information 

The exhibition is available for tour to other venues. Please contact: 

Text and images © Tim Smith

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