The West Indian Front Room exhibition explores the essence of homes created by post-WWII immigrants
The West Indian Front Room exhibition explores the essence of homes created by post-WWII immigrants who have come from the Caribbean to Britain since the 1960s. The central focus of the show is an installation by writer and guest curator Michael McMillan which represents his vision of the traditional ‘West Indian’ front room, drawn from memories of his parents’ and relatives’ homes in the 1960s and 1970s. Special attention has been given to the choices people made in furnishing their front room, the symbolism of particular objects and the links between objects and personal identity.
Michael’s evocation of a typical ‘West Indian’ front room includes a range of possessions popular in African-Caribbean homes at the time and which he believes had special resonance for their owners. His rich recollection of being a young boy in his parents’ front room describes some of these objects and evokes the textures, smells and sounds of that East London home:
“You weren’t allowed in this room unless there were guests, but it’s Sunday, Jim Reeves’s ‘The Distant Drums’ is blaring out of the ‘Bluespot’ radiogram and big people are chatting news from back home. Mum is drinking Babycham. I pass her the plastic pineapple ice bucket and listen quiet as a lamb, my skin sticking to the plastic covering the PVC imitation leather settee. I smell of rice and peas and the paraffin heater competing with the air freshener and polish from the drinks cabinet filled with glasses that are never used. I touch the painted glass fish and plastic flowers on fanciful sugar-starched crochet on a gold-rimmed fake marble coffee table. A blue-eyed Jesus looks down at me from The Last Supper on floral wallpaper saying ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’. Sunshine beams through pressed lace curtains onto the colourful patterned carpet. The front room looked so good, that it didn’t matter how poor we were, we were decent people. Growing up, this room echoed the proverb, ‘By the sweat of your brow, you will eat bread’ and haunted me like nails scratching a blackboard. I know now that it is part of who I am and unconsciously I recreate a similar shrine in my own home today”.
An evocation of this childhood memory will be created for the exhibition, a front room of the 1960s and 1970s in which visitors will be encouraged to linger.
Michael McMillan is a British-born writer of Vincentian parentage. His plays and performance pieces have been produced in the UK and Holland. Core themes in his work explore post-WWII immigration and settlement, identities and gender, hidden histories and the family.
His previous projects, include The Black Chair: an installation and exhibition rediscovering the West Indian Front Room, shown at High Wycombe Museum (1998-9) and Slough Museum (2000), and The West Indian Front Room shown at Zion Arts, Manchester (2003) commissioned by Black Arts Alliance and The West Indian Front Room: a performance installation at The Albany, Deptford (2004), West Indian Front Room exhibition at the Geffrye Museum (2006).
Michael McMillan is author of The Front Room, published by Black Dog, £19.95. Details at thefrontroom.org
The West Indian Front Room Memories and Impressions of Black British Homes:
Thursday May 26th 2011
Start 6:00pm Sharp – 8:00pm
High Wycombe Library, 5 Eden Place, High Wycombe HP11 2DH