Marcus Mosiah Garvey was galvanized by an apparently imperious mission: to lobby British MPs and government ministers into reforming the social and economic conditions of British colonial citizens of African descent living in the West Indies. Jamaica’s most forthright political leader, he visited England several times before settling in London in 1935. He met with the Black seamen in the East End who distributed his papers to other seamen at various ports across the UK. An excellent orator, he would often amass small crowds at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, preaching about the philosophies and practices of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) – a movement that eventually coerced the British Parliament into commissioning a report on the quality of life for all workers. Although banned in many countries, the radical literature he published for the down but not defeated Black masses was reflected in The Negro World (1918) and The Black Man (1933) both printed on presses owned by the UNIA.
Taking heed of Garvey’s emphasis on self-publishing, Alvaro Barrington produced a full-colour 66-page magazine alongside his first solo exhibition at Sadie Coles at their Davies Street London location. The inaugural issue of Garvey!: SEX, LOVE, NURTURING, FAMALAY (2019) borrows its glossy paged, image-centric layout style from the now defunct African-American teen magazines Word Up! and Right On. In a similar editorial fashion, Garvey! features a letter from the editor quoting the rapper 2Pac, an interview with Lauren Du Graf and a bedroom-wall-ready, pull-out poster of his recent work. But in addition, there is political commentary on how two-party political systems affect families attempting to cross borders, Instagram screenshots of pop culture highlights, photo essays, sketches from his studio, recipes for a hibiscus cocktail and hazelnut butter – all penned by the family he has reaped around the world. Turning to the centrefold of Garvey! is Barrington’s manifesto, best not to be read as a linear statement but rather a stream of consciousness, sharp utterances and things you would hesitate to repeat in mixed company: ‘BURN BABYLON’, ‘IT’S MY FLESH THAT HOLDS ON TO THE TRUTH’, ‘NEW WOMEN, OLD WAYS, GOTTA KEEP A BALANCE’ and ‘I’M FROM THE FAR SIDE OF A SMALL ISLAND’.
Walking through the gallery, Barrington explains that this collection of work, ‘Birth’ (2019), is the first chapter in a story of Garvey and other Black figures with well-remembered lives in London and Harlem, New York, in the early 20th century. He posits: ‘at the same time as Garvey was looking at Africa while studying here in London, Gauguin was visiting Martinique, Picasso was looking at African sculptures, Matisse was visiting Harlem to listen to Jazz.’ In Western metropolises, artists were outstretching to other continents, looking for divine reasoning of themselves.
Barrington makes an interesting analogy between Garvey figuratively giving birth to the malleable principles of Black liberation and unity and the story of his own family, especially his mother’s. He imagines his parents’ romance through gestures and motifs, reawakening the conditions required to build his famalay. On the first floor, oversized and mostly square canvases, made of burlap instead of cotton, are embellished in green, red and black paint – the colours that make up the Pan-African flag, which Garvey designed in 1920. Phallic shapes figure as close-ups of his father and stepfather (in yellow and red respectively). Yarn-like strands represent the sperm that fertilized his mother egg (typically green). In one image, she bridges the gap between the two men. Ghanaian fertility signs are used as motifs, as well as Caribbean vegetation, such as the hibiscus flower, reminding viewers of the cultural and geographical context of the family picture.
Another extension of Barrington’s famalay is on view at Emalin, where a coopetition with his artist-friend Teresa Farrell is presented under ‘Tt X AB: TALL BOYS & A DOUBLE SHOT ESPRESSO’. The two shows bear almost no relation in theme and style – a bed-frame is planted in the middle of the room, life-size portraits and expressionist canvases take up majority of the wall space. But each require a certain attentiveness to catch the finer details. The mixed media painting, Tall Boys & A Double Shot Espresso (2019), traces a much smaller collaboration between the two artists. Two shot glasses are depicted steaming in the right-hand corner, while hand-drawn caricatures of Teresa and Alvaro stretch out their arms in the background, as if energized by the coffee spilling over the canvas, giving the surface a washed brown tone.
Born in Venezuela to Haitain and Grendadian parents, Barrington’s cultural and lateral ties to Central America, the West Indies and the USA informs his internationalist view. Although his interest in painting was piqued during his travels in central America, he was formally trained at Hunter College in New York before completing his MFA in painting at London’s Slade. An impressive trajectory for a young man born in 1983, the same year of the United States invasion of Grenada, where he would live until the age of eight with his grandmother, sharing the same bed. Whilst embracing, he was comforted both by the sound of the heavy tropical rain pelting the rooftop and by the kind of kinship you can literally hold.
Main image: Alvaro Barrington, GARVEY poster (detail), 2019. Courtesy: Sadie Coles HQ, London
Rianna Jade Parker is a writer, critic and researcher based in London, UK. She is a founding member of interdisciplinary collective Thick/er Black Lines and is a contributing editor of frieze.
First published in Issue 208