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Michael McMillan on curating A front Room in 1970

Artist Michael McMillan’s installation in Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now, Tate Britain. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock
  • Written bySigita Bendikaitė
  • Published date08 March 2022
Artist Michael McMillan’s installation in Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now, Tate Britain. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock
Artist Michael McMillan’s installation in Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now, Tate Britain. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

Last summer, Michael McMillan, Associate Lecturer for Cultural and Historical Studies at London College of Fashion, UAL curated the now permanent exhibition ‘A front room in 1970’ at the Museum of the Home. A new iteration of this reconstructed fictional 1970s interior has since been included in the Tate exhibition; Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now. LCF Stories talked to Michael about curating the exhibitions and working with a variety of mediums.

Last Summer your exhibition The Front Room became permanent in the Museum of Home in Hackney, congratulations! Can you tell us more about it?

The West Indian Front Room was the Museum of the Home's (formerly known as the Geffrye Museum) most successful exhibition (2005-06) because the central installation is based on a 1970s living room of a Caribbean migrant family that resonated with other migrant and white working-class communities. Since then, called The Front Room, it has been iterated in The Netherlands, Curacao, Johannesburg and France. My return to the Museum of the Home came through writing and directing Waiting for myself to appear - a site-responsive one-woman performance piece set in the Museum’s Almshouse (2019) and is now a film installation there. With the turn of Black Lives Matter, I proposed The Front Room as a permanent 1970s period room at the Museum of the Home.

I am currently working on the revised edition of The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home (Black Dog 2009), which is now out of print. This should be out with Lund Humphries in late 2022.

Still film image from ‘Waiting for myself to appear’ by Michael McMillan in collaboration with Dubmorphology
Still film image from ‘Waiting for myself to appear’ by Michael McMillan in collaboration with Dubmorphology

How did you go about putting the room together? Did you use personal artefacts or did you include pieces from other people’s collections?

The design, decorating and dressing of the installation is informed by my lived experience and cultural heritage that I share with individuals who donate artefacts, often after their parents have passed away, including my own. This includes my Mum’s crochet collection. This is supplemented by larger items like large and soft furnishings, furniture, fixtures, and appliances from a range of places and online sources. I’m constantly learning something new about the front room and riffing of it.

The new exhibition at Tate Britain Life Between Islands includes a new iteration of The Front Room – can you tell us how is it different and talk more about the process of putting it together? 

Unlike The Front Room at the Museum of the Home, the iteration in Life Between Islands is a group show of 46 artists at Tate Britain: the former is a medium-scale museum, the latter, a national cultural institution and all that entails. This particular front room belongs to Joyce (in honour of my late Aunt), a childless single woman, from an educated middle-class Caribbean background, who teaches at a local Saturday School. She won’t call herself an activist but attends meetings, and as a woman of style, she holds house parties in her front room that disturb the neighbours.

I was also fascinated by your multimedia Sonic Vibrations project – it truly felt like an immersive, deep dive into the sound system culture. Can you tell us more about the project? How did it come about?

As the sound system is part of Black popular culture. I knew I would get a response when I sent out the call to develop Sonic Vibrations: Sound System culture, Lovers Rock and Dub, which emerged from my exhibition Rockers, Soulheads & Lovers: Sound Systems back in da Day (2015-16) that came from the radiogram in the front room. Sonic Vibrations is an anthology of oral histories, commentaries, essays, short stories, dub-poetry from Black sound (systems) women, visual artists, writers, poets, choreographers, scholars, photographers, and a sonic landscape created by Dubmorpology. It is published as a Two-part guest edition for Writers Mosaic - an online initiative led by writers of colour.

Rockers, Soulheads & Lovers: Sound Systems back in da Day (2015-16)
Rockers, Soulheads & Lovers: Sound Systems back in da Day (2015-16)

Can you share one highlight and one challenge of curating this project?

The challenge in curating any project is negotiating with an institution, often white-run, museum or gallery, space, resources, personnel, and budget. Once everything is agreed, the fun begins with sourcing materials peripatetically, and coming from a community arts practice, I know how to make something out of nothing.

The last few years were really challenging for both students and teachers. As a lecturer at LCF, what was the most inspiring thing for you working with students during the pandemic?

I have been moved by how students under enormous pressure, mental health issues, and a precarious future in the pandemic, have persevered.

What was the most rewarding experience you’ve had as a lecturer?

What is rewarding is discovering something new, fresh and dynamic that students share and create, which I am always learning from, and reminds me why I love to teach.

What have you recently watched, read and listened to that inspired you?

I started watching Passing on Netflix, which is based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel directed by Rebecca Hall. It is a black and white film exploring the trope of racial passing in 1920s Harlem. I am fascinated by the subject, given my own Caribbean ethnic mixture. I am still haunted from reading Joseph Conrad’s powerful yet racist 19th century novel Heart of Darkness last year, which I used in a short film Walking in the Wake - I made with Dubmorphology. I have been struck recently by the eloquence of Colin Grant’s five-part essay Herb on Radio 3 about the history, cultural politics and complexities of cannabis.

Finally, your work manifests through such a variety of mediums – can you share any advice with students who might be interested but reticent to explore new mediums for their work?

I see my practice as inter-disciplinary, which emerged out of necessity to ‘pay the rent’. I did go to university, but not drama or art school, to train as playwright, writer or artist/curator. I learnt from experience on the job, saw and read a lot of work, and was active in communities of practice. Not knowing the rules can be liberating, because one then has no fear of breaking them. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei said that students, should take their student fees, and travel the world. So, break the rules. If you create the work you want to create, and tell the story you want to tell, then it will find home in a medium. There’s no money in art, so just get on with it and make the work, and Jah will provide.

Life Between Islands is a landmark group exhibition celebrating 70 years of Caribbean-British art. It features over 40 artists and explores how people from the Caribbean have transformed British culture and society. Open at Tate Britain until Sunday 3 April.