70 years ago, on 22 June 1948, HMT Empire Windrush anchored at Tilbury Docks, Essex, carrying 492 men, women, and children from former British Caribbean colonies, who came to be known as the “Windrush generation”. They crossed the Atlantic in response to Britain’s post-war labour shortages, and are now recognised to have transformed vital parts aspects of British society.
Amid the recent scandals surrounding the mistreatment of the Windrushers by the Home Office, Jim Grover’s Windrush: Portrait of a Generation seeks to give a more intimate insight into the lives of one community of Caribbean migrants – and their families – who made a corner of South London their home. On show at gallery@oxo until 10 June, the exhibition doesn’t specifically address current issues, but Grover hopes it will help celebrate a group which “truly deserves our respect and admiration”.
Grover first met the group back in July 2017, when he was invited to attend a dominoes club by a Jamaican parishioner from his local church. He was startled to walk into a large room full of first-generation migrant Jamaican men, mostly in their 60s or 70s, playing competitive dominoes – or “bones” as they call it – on a wager of a round of drinks.
Over the next year, Grover found himself absorbed into the community. “I had had no idea this parallel world existed right on my doorstep,” he says, but he was welcomed in anyway, and soon invited into family homes to photograph intimate traditions such as ‘open house’, in which large extended families gather weekly to eat and catch up, and ‘nine night’, a mortuary custom full of food and drinking to celebrate and send off the deceased.
The most intimate tradition that Grover was photographed was the funeral of Floris, a first-generation Jamaican migrant woman. Grover had shot a photograph of Floris back in 2015, while he was following a local priest for a year for the series Of Things Not Seen, and after Floris died in 2017, her daughter Diane asked him to photograph the funeral. Diane wanted it to be “a stylish send-off”, and displayed Grover’s shot of her mother in the church; his images of the day, Sunset, are on show as a slideshow in Windrush: Portrait of a Generation, alongside Bones, the series on the dominoes club.
“It was an absolutely mind-blowing experience,” says Grover, describing the celebratory chanting during the burial, and the relaxed, upbeat atmosphere of the service and afterparty. Singing, dancing, and drinking play large roles in a Jamaican funeral, he says, as the deceased is given their “last tot” of Wray & Nephew Overproof rum, while friends and relatives sip and sing by the side of the grave.
“I feel very privileged to be able to tell their story,” he says. “That required them to trust me and allow me into their lives”.
But as time passes away so too do these traditions, and Grover says he encountered many Caribbean migrants who no longer carry on the rituals from their birth country. “They’ve lived here for so long, they realise now that they are British,” he says. “I don’t think they feel it is important to hold on to everything.
“I’ve ended up doing something which is both a fascinating story, but also an important story,” he adds. “It’s living history.”