Andrew Jackson’s latest body of work, From A Small Island is an insightful tribute to the Windrush Generation and the hundreds of Jamaicans who following the war travelled to help rebuild Great Britain in the mid-twentieth century. Since the UK’s implementation of its hostile immigration policy many have been denied basic rights and faced deportation. The project is a poignant reminder of the issues in British society and its recognition of its diversity. Through a personal and sensitive approach Andrew presents and reminds us of the human stories behind the narrative. It is also the first part of a trilogy that documents the past, present and future traces of Jamaican migration in the UK.
Alvaro Martinez interviewed Andrew Jackson, about From a Small Island, his experiences as a descendent of the Windrush Generation, and the difficulties to find his identity reflected in English institutionalised history. This sentiment, exposes the necessity for a change in the definitions of National Identity.
Your project refers to the past migratory movement of Jamaican diaspora from a present standpoint. How do you think an art project can combat the misrepresentation of Jamaican culture in today’s British society?
It would be very difficult for a solitary art project to be able to counter hundreds of years of systemic British propaganda that has shaped misrepresentations, not only of notions of Jamaica in Britain but also of Blackness as a whole. The mythology of Jamaica, amplified by ad agencies within a ‘Jamaica no problem’ mentality has depicted Jamaica as a paradise island where time and consequences are of no matter, as perceived in the Lilt and Malibu adverts of my youth. These adverts stem of course, from existing racial tropes which have been generated for centuries.
What motivations led you to create From A Small Island?
From a Small Island was more an attempt to honour not only the legacy of my parents but also that entire generation of Jamaicans who crossed the sea and answered the call from the ‘Motherland’ to rebuild a Britain broken by war.
I have to point out that From a Small Island is part of a trilogy of works exploring the past, present and future legacies of post-war Jamaican migration to the UK. The second and third chapters, which I’m currently making, entitled From Whence We Came and The Last Days of Summer, explore, respectively, notions of home and of a return to Jamaica. That return may be an involuntarily imposed return or otherwise. But I am also looking at the ways in which the grandchildren of those post-war migrants – the young Black millennials – coming to the end of their youth, in a time of Brexit and when the UK is redrawing its immigration policies, are coping with the legacies of their grandparents’ choice to migrate to the UK.
Has the development of this project made you reconsider your own feelings about belonging?
I’ve thought a lot about belonging over the years.
When I was very young, I wanted so hard to find a sense of belonging to England and to be able to lay claim to an ‘English identity.’ Yet, as hard as I tried, it felt as if my attempts were always being thwarted and that it was constantly being pointed out to me – at every turn – how my differences excluded me from any sense of belonging. I would search for films and television programs to find myself represented and would rarely find depictions of Blackness which affirmed my own.
Perhaps, in light of this rejection, at a young age, I retreated into trying to find a sense of belonging within my parents’ Jamaican identity. Although, when I finally went to Jamaica, it was quickly pointed out to me that in no way was I to be considered Jamaican – I was an Englishman.
It’s strange, as an adult who lives between England and Canada, that I look back at England with sadness at times, and yet also with great fondness for a country which I felt never wanted me.
I will, of course, never be Canadian or indeed Jamaican, but I will always be English. My accent, my earliest memories, the ways I think, the regional phrases I use, and the taxes I pay will all tie me to England, will all make me English. But perhaps it’s an Englishness that exists more in the ethereal spaces of my mind than in realities of the world.
Belonging is a concept, one that is conjured up and made real only when we find acceptance and familiarity I have yet to find.
Although you haven’t found a familiarity towards national identity, are there any positive outcomes of your project – and of the experiences embedded in it – in the process of coming to terms with your identity as an English person?
I don’t think that I’ll ever come to terms with my identity as an English person. Not that I haven’t wanted to belong to that identity, of course, and that there hasn’t been a lifetime of trying (and I’m sure that some will say, well, if you don’t like it here then leave), but it’s rather that notion of belonging is constantly being denied to me. The recent ‘Windrush Scandal’, the notion of hostile environments, the fact that as a Black man I am 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white man or 3 times more likely to die from Covid-19 are all examples of systemic racism put in place to actively deny me from feeling a sense of belonging.
So, it’s not a matter that I don’t want to lay claim to an English identity rather that it is actively being denied me. As the cultural theorist Stuart Hall said to a white interviewer the Guardian back in 2007:
“I have lived here for 57 years but I am no more English now than I ever was…In the back of my head are things that can’t be in the back of your head. That part of me comes from a plantation…I was brought up to understand you, I read your literature, I knew “Daffodils” off by heart before I knew the name of a Jamaican flower. You don’t lose that, it becomes stronger.’
In terms of positive outcomes from this work, when the work commenced in 2008, I had hoped that it would lay claim to my parents’ presence in England and to the fact that they and the generation who came with them, crossed the sea to Britain to make their homes here. But also they were invited to the Mother Country as British citizens (which they were) and that they helped build a country broken by war. I think, in some small way, being asked questions about their experience attests to that.
My wife would be upset if I didn’t point out that we met whilst making this work, so that was another positive too!
The recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests, and particularly the removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, signify the discontent of a part of the population with the institutionalisation of British History. Do you see a turning point in these events in regard to how “Englishness” is conveyed to future generations?
Whether taken down or destroyed, the damage committed by the individuals memorialised in those statues has already been done. The institutions and individuals who traded in enslaved peoples have already benefited from the pain and suffering of others. Tearing down Colston’s statue is undoubtedly symbolic and moving at the moment, but in comparison to the hundreds of years when British ships transported 10-12 million enslaved African people across the Atlantic, it becomes less potent perhaps.
In the 186 years of English history since the abolition of slavery, there have been many opportunities or turning points in which notions of “Englishness” could have been made more inclusive. These attempts were crowned in 2016 with the Referendum vote to leave the European Union. If anyone wanted a sign to demonstrate the level of desire for inclusivity – that was it. And we know how that turned out.
So, do I see these events, where a statue of one racist slave owner is pulled down, as a turning point? If we consider that this is happening at the same time that the government is ending freedom of movement, redrawing its immigration policies and ramping up a hostile environment for those who it doesn’t see as being “English” – well, no.
That ‘ethereal’ conception of Englishness you described is very relatable, even for a foreigner like me. Has photography neglected the portrayal of national identity? What photographic referents have you identified yourself with in the development of your career?
There have been numerous attempts, by well-known English (white) photographers, in recent times, to document English identities, but I have rarely seen myself or other minority ethnic communities reflected in those works. This results in what George Gerbner would describe as a ‘symbolic annihilation’ of Blackness from any association or inclusion in the definition of Englishness.
In terms of photographers reflecting my experience in the early development of my career, I was drawn to the works of Black British photographers such as Vanley Burke, Neil Kenlock and Armet Francis.
What has been the biggest impact of the recent crisis and the blm protests in your practice?
In the first instance, the pandemic has prevented me from continuing to work on the 2nd and 3rd chapters of the trilogy; From a Small Island was the first in the series. The 2nd – From Whence We Came (I was meant to travel to Jamaica in August) and the 3rd – The Last Days of Summer being made in the UK. These further instalments are attempts to explore what happened next after the Windrush Generation arrived and what is facing their grandchildren and great-grandchildren in a time when the Conservative government is redrawing its immigration policies.
What consequences will recent events have in the Black community, and in your future work?
I think a re-evaluation of belonging will be uppermost in the thoughts, not just of the Black community but of other racialised people, especially as Covid-19 will have disproportionately affected these communities.
I think it’s unavoidable that this will have to be reflected in the ways in which the 2nd and 3rd chapters develops and responds to this new normal. How that will reveal itself, as of yet, I’m not sure.
Loupe Issue 10
As our first themed edition, the issue represents an exciting development for the magazine. We opted for the important yet contentious subject of National Identity, a topic that deserves careful consideration in light of recent events.
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