In 2017, the British painter Hurvin Anderson was with his wife and two of his five children on a Jamaican beach, helping to guide turtle hatchlings into the water, when he noticed several abandoned hotels half-built against the mountainside. Something about the spot, outside the small town of Oracabessa, struck him as both beautiful and “inhospitable”. Those forsaken hotels had “the feel of relics,” he says, soundtracked by “the roar of the sea against the rocks”. The photographs that Anderson took that day became the source for his latest series of paintings – including several large, wonderfully woozy works that will go on show at Thomas Dane Gallery in London later this month.
“Somehow, this place seemed to embody all these ideas that I think circle around the Caribbean community in Britain,” he tells me, speaking from the Cambridgeshire village where he has lived since 2015. “Even now, there’s a search for a utopia, this perfect space. People from the Caribbean came [to Britain] for a better life, but I’m not sure they really found it. And then you go back to the Caribbean, which, to the outside world, is supposed to be a kind of Eden, this vision of perfection, and there are questions around that as well.” He pauses. “There seems to be this constant search for a place to rest: somewhere you’re not fighting against society in some way.”
It’s 23 years since Anderson, whose parents came to Britain from Jamaica before he was born, graduated from the Royal College of Art. But despite an important retrospective in 2013 at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery and being shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2017 (the year his 2008 painting Country Club: Chicken Wire sold at auction for almost £2.65 million), he remains somewhat under the radar.
Later this year, he will appear in Life Between Islands, an exhibition of British-Caribbean art across four generations at Tate Britain. Its co-curator, the gallery’s director Alex Farquharson, plans to show three Caribbean landscapes by Anderson including a new acquisition, Hawksbill Bay (2020), a “coastal scene where modernist buildings are half-obscured with tropical trees and foliage, as if nature is returning and the moment the buildings represent is receding”, inspired by that 2017 trip to Jamaica. Three more of his works can be seen in Mixing It Up, a survey of contemporary painting at London’s Hayward Gallery.
Anderson was born in 1965 in Handsworth, a district of Birmingham, the youngest of eight children – though, he tells me, “we weren’t all in the house at the same time”. His father, Stedford, who died in 2015, was a welder; his mother, Elsade, a seamstress. According to Anderson, “If my dad had said, ‘He’s coming to the factory’, I would have gone.” But both parents recognised his artistic talent. When he was little, his mother used to put up his pictures around the house. “They’re still there,” Anderson says. “I drew a lot from photographs – of family, for example – and I remember painting a map of Jamaica, copies of Japanese prints, sentimental objects like that.”
Anderson’s childhood, though, differed from that of his siblings. “My older brothers and sisters came from Jamaica in their early teens. But I didn’t have their life. I wasn’t given their opportunities, in an odd way. So, there was this kind of disjuncture.” As if Jamaica was a sort of paradise from which he was excluded? “Not so much ‘excluded’,” he replies, softly, “but, yes, in some respects.”
In 2002, Anderson attended an eight-week residency in Trinidad and aspects of the island frequently appear in his pictures: a colonial country club’s tennis court, viewed through a perimeter fence; hazy beaches populated with spectral tourists; an empty bar, inaccessible behind a security grille of red ironwork.
When, though, I mention Peter Doig, the British artist six years his senior who, since 2002, has spent a lot of time in Trinidad, painting similarly dreamy Caribbean scenes, Anderson becomes uneasy.
Doig taught him at the Royal College, didn’t he? “I don’t know if it was ‘teaching’,” Anderson replies. “He was there, but he spoke to other students more.” He concedes that “Peter does have an influence over [my] generation of painters: he’s a bit of a figure. And maybe some works [are] related.” But: “Is he a friend? I don’t know. We don’t go out to dinner. I speak to him once a year.”
Besides, Anderson points out, other British artists have worked in the region – “John Minton painted in Jamaica, Freud [depicted] some bananas” – but Doig has “made the Caribbean his territory”. And this presents a challenge: “I wonder: because he has done that, am I not allowed to do it?”
The vexed legacy of colonialism has always been a theme of Anderson’s subtle, melancholic pictures. His country-club paintings adopt the perspective of excluded islanders; a work from 2004, featuring another ghostly, derelict hotel, contains a sign bearing its name: Imperial.
When I ask him if, after George Floyd’s death and the international Black Lives Matter protests, the world is finally engaging with the issues he has been interrogating for years, Anderson again appears uncomfortable.
“I think something’s happening, all around: there’s a recognition, a shift, something new,” he agrees. At the same time, he’s ambivalent about how western society should redress historical wrongs. For instance, should art history be “decolonised”? He pauses, before replying slowly: “You can’t unmake things. Once something’s happened, it’s there. For me, if you can deal with the present, and make progress now, that’s what should be done.”