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Caribbean Artists Movement (1966–1972)

The Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) was born with the aim of celebrating a sense of shared Caribbean ‘nationhood’, exchanging ideas and forging a new Caribbean aesthetic in the arts. Errol Lloyd, an artist and member of CAM, explores the Movement's origins, work and legacies. 

Origins

The Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), founded in London in 1966, was the first organised collaboration of artists from the Caribbean with the aim of celebrating a new sense of shared Caribbean ‘nationhood’, exchanging ideas and attempting to forge a new Caribbean aesthetic in the arts. Previously there had been individual Caribbean artists in Britain actively pursuing their art, some with notable success, but all worked in relative isolation. The arrival of the celebrated Empire Windrush which landed at Tilbury Docks in 1948 with some 800 West Indians aboard, ushered in the first wave of mass Caribbean migration to Britain, and among their number were aspiring artists. The Caribbean Artists Movement provided a forum for shared artistic expression, and ironically perhaps, provided the foundation for the later emergence of a new generation of Black British born and bred artists, whose concerns were more British than Caribbean.

In those early days, communication between the Caribbean territories was very limited since some were separated by considerable distances: for example, Jamaica is more than one thousand miles from Guyana, and a long way from the intervening islands of the Leewards and Windwards, Barbados and Trinidad. It is not surprising that Britain, the former West Indian colonies’ ‘Mother Country’, provided the first chance for residents of these widely separated territories to meet. Inevitably these new ‘arrivants’ would have identified themselves as ‘Caribbean’ or ‘West Indian’, and most would have entertained plans to return to the Caribbean at some stage in the future. It was therefore natural for the new collaboration of artists to be designated the Caribbean Artists Movement.

The term ‘artists’ did not refer exclusively to visual artists as may be assumed by the uninitiated. Adopting the term in its broadest sense, CAM involved novelists, poets, playwrights, theatre directors and theatre practitioners. Moreover, as CAM was an inclusive ‘movement’, membership was not restricted to practising artists, but included critics, academics, historians, and a range of activists drawn mainly but not exclusively from the Caribbean, as members also included a good number of white British associates with a serious interest in the arts of the region.

CAM’s historical and social backdrop in the mid-1960s was the recent attainment of political independence by many former British colonies, not only in the Caribbean, but also in Africa and Asia. This represented a new impetus for people to redefine themselves and to take a new pride in their own cultural and political achievements. Whilst this would invariably involve a degree of inward-looking, it was also inevitable that many individuals in the arts would seek to broaden their horizons by travelling abroad, mainly to Britain and the USA, to acquire new skills or seek outlets and audiences for their work. Chief amongst these were writers, as there were few publishing houses in the Caribbean and a limited readership. Three writers in particular – John La Rose, Kamau Brathwaite and Andrew Salkey – founded CAM.

Trinidad becomes a sovereign nation poster

independence poster for Trinidad, published by HMSO

Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica were the first Caribbean nations to gain independence from Britain in 1962. Intended for a British audience, this poster describes Trinidad’s major industries as well as the growing tourist market.

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Manuscript of 'Jamaica' by Andrew Salkey

Manuscript of 'Jamaica' by Andrew Salkey, (c) The Estate of Andrew Salkey

Andrew Salkey, one of the founders of the Caribbean Artists Movement, won the Thomas Helmore Poetry Prize in 1955 for his epic poem ‘Jamaica Symphony’, later reworked as Jamaica (1973). Of its conception he said,  'for the first time I began to realise myself as a colonial and us as a colony, and our history and the way that we were forever at somebody else’s beck and call'.

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Held by © Estate of Andrew Salkey

The founders of CAM: John La Rose, Kamau Braithwaite and Andrew Salkey

John La Rose, Trinidadian-born poet and political activist, migrated to the UK in 1961. When in the early 1960s La Rose met with Guyanese novelist, Wilson Harris, he suggested that there were enough Caribbean writers and artists in Britain to set up an organisation for the exchange of ideas and dialogue:

I had seen the need for an organisation of writers and artists around the time I began to think of publishing. Here was a kind of Mecca for the Caribbean writer…I thought there was no organisation, there was no means of interaction which was taking place among those writers. And the work of West Indian writing had required a certain amount of concentration, about what it was people were attempting to do either in the novel or the short story or the poem. And to some extent in painting, for those were the things that interested me most – and drama.

Kamau Brathwaite, Barbadian-born historian and poet recently arrived in Britain to complete a doctorate, supported La Rose’s ideas. Initially though, his enthusiasm was more focussed on literature. With the kernel of an arts organisation having taken shape, La Rose was reported as saying: ‘Well, we can’t do anything without Andrew Salkey!’

Andrew Salkey, Jamaican-born writer, had long been active as a freelance journalist in the UK, working mainly for the BBC. During his career he had developed a wide network of cosmopolitan contacts which proved invaluable for the early recruitment of CAM membership and support. Salkey, already a published novelist, did regular interviews for Caribbean Voices, a BBC overseas programme which over the years had taken on a distinctly literary slant and given him an opportunity to establish a rapport with such literary figures as Edgar Mittleholtzer, V S Naipaul, Wilson Harris, George Lamming, Sam Selvon, Michael Anthony, Evan Jones and other distinguished writers.

Photograph of Samuel Selvon, John La Rose and Andrew Salkey by Horace Ové

Photograph taken by Horace Ove. Three men (Samuel Selvon, John La Rose and Andrew Salkey) liming in a garden

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The Emigrants by George Lamming

Dust jacket of The Emigrants by George Lamming

Among Andrew Salkey's literary contacts was Barbadian George Lamming, who came to England in 1950 on the same ship as fellow aspiring novelist Samuel Selvon. His novel The Emigrants (1954) features a cover designed by Guyanese artist and writer Denis Williams.

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A number of factors made the three CAM founders a formidable team. By now La Rose had followed up his publishing aspirations, and with his partner, Sarah White, formed New Beacon Books aimed at pioneering Caribbean writing in the UK and further afield. Kamau Brathwaite’s long poem Rights of Passage (published by Oxford University Press in 1967) received critical acclaim and enthusiastic response at public readings, which raised his profile. Though Andrew Salkey was not able to recruit all of those from his BBC literary network, his other extensive contacts were vital in reaching a wide range of people in the arts and beyond.

A growing movement

Within a relatively short period CAM had attracted a broad collection of distinguished participants and members. These included such eminent elder figures of Caribbean arts as novelist, critic and historian C L R James (author of one of the very early West Indian novels, Minty Alley, and what is acknowledged as one of the great books on sport, Beyond a Boundary), novelist and poet Wilson Harris (later knighted), and Pearl Connor, theatrical agent and activist. Members representing the visual arts included celebrated sculptor Ronald Moody, painter Aubrey Williams and textile designer, Althea McNish. Less established artists at the time included Karl ‘Jerry’ Craig, Art Derry and Clifton Campbell, and younger fledgling artists included Paul Dash, Winston Branch, Errol Lloyd and Winston Benn. From an early stage, CAM monthly meetings became public affairs, held mainly at the West Indian Students’ Centre in Earl’s Court, West London – though often followed by private gatherings or ‘limes’ in individual members’ homes. These public meetings often took the form of formal talks, spirited discussion on burning issues relating to the role of the artist in Caribbean society, the development of a distinct Caribbean aesthetic, poetry readings or selected readings from novels. A New Beacon bookstall was a feature of all CAM events.

Trinidad textile print designed by Althea McNish for Heal’s

Althea McNish print

Members representing the visual arts included celebrated sculptor Ronald Moody, painter Aubrey Williams and textile designer, Althea McNish.

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The Groundings with My Brothers by Walter Rodney

Cover of Walter Rodney's 'The Grounding with my Brothers' by Errol Lloyd

The Groundings (1969) is a collection of public lectures given in Jamaica by Guyanese-born scholar and activist Walter Rodney. With artwork by Errol Lloyd, this was the first work published by the London-based Bogle-L’Ouverture independent Black publishing house.

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Held by © Artwork for cover design of 'The Groundings of my Brothers' by Walter Rodney: © Errol Lloyd

It is worth mentioning that CAM, in spite of its West Indian orientation, was not insular, and a number of white British sympathisers lent valuable support in a variety of ways to its launch. Supporters included the Cambridge academic Bryan King,  and Edward Lucie-Smith, poet, critic, curator and broadcaster, both living in Britain but born in the Caribbean; others of note were the literary scholar Louis James and Anne Walmsley, the publisher and editor  both had held teaching posts in Jamaica for some years, and they retained a close interest in the region.

Showcasing Caribbean arts: Exhibitions, talks and more

During its six years of existence, CAM organised a series of events to showcase and raise the profile of Caribbean arts. Several CAM art exhibitions were mounted across London.[1] In 1971 CAM provided the core of artists featured in the group exhibition of Caribbean art at the Commonwealth Institute Gallery, curated by Denis Bowen with CAM support.

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.

The high points of the CAM programme were undoubtedly its conferences.[2] 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.

Typescript of The Black Jacobins by C L R James

Typescript of The Black Jacobins play by C L R James, 1967

This is a draft typescript of The Black Jacobins, C L R James’s 1967 play about the Haitian Revolution.

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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 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.

Legacies

The other CAM legacies, like that of a good teacher, are timeless. Virtually all of the young artists mentioned above have acknowledged CAM as a major influence in their development, as have writers such as James Berry, Faustin Charles, Frank John and Linton Kwesi Johnson. A number of subsequent events and organisations, such as the highly successful International Book Fairs of Black, Radical and Third World Books, and the formation of Bogle L’Ouverture Publications and Creation for Liberation, all acknowledged their indebtedness to the Movement.

Photograph of James Berry

Photograph of James Berry taken by Fay Godwin

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Artworks by Ronald Moody, Aubrey Williams and Winston Branch have in more recent years been acquired for the Tate, and serve to focus attention on Caribbean-born British Black modernist artists.

In the words of Aubrey Williams, ‘CAM helped create an intellectual atmosphere for everybody to be creative and relate to each other’. This spirit has persisted down the years among all who were members of CAM, and remains being a source of inspiration to others.

©  Errol Lloyd.

Footnotes

[1] Locations included the Digby Stuart Hall at the University of Roehampton, Alexandra Palace, the Theatre Royal, Stratford, the House of Commons and the University of Kent at Canterbury.

[2] Two conferences were hosted by the University of Kent at Canterbury; the CAM-WISU (West Indian Students Union) weekend symposium in London is generally regarded as the third CAM conference.

Banner: ‘Trinidad’ textile print designed by Althea McNish for Heal’s, © Althea McNish

  • Errol Lloyd
  • Errol Lloyd is an artist, writer and editor. Born in Jamaica, Errol came to London in 1963 to study law before pursuing a career as an artist. His commissioned work includes busts of Sir Alexander Bustamante the past Prime Minister of Jamaica, the writer and historian C L R James and the writer and publisher John La Rose. He has exhibited his work widely and is well known as a book illustrator. His novel for teenagers Many Rivers to Cross (1995) was nominated for the Carnegie Medal.